Restricting energy use is the only way to tackle climate change, according to new research by a historian at the University of East Anglia.
Dr Paul Warde argues that policies focused on energy efficiency are unlikely to produce the cuts in consumption needed to control carbon emissions. His paper Facing the challenge of climate change: energy efficiency and energy consumption is published in the journal History and Policy.
Politicians have hailed energy-saving technology as a solution to climate change and current EU environmental policy aims to cut energy use by 20 per cent by improving energy efficiency. Dr Warde’s research shows that energy efficiency improvements of this order are easily achievable, having occurred in the 1920s, 1950s, and again in the 1980s, but on their own have had little impact on climate change.
He argues that even if energy efficiency is improved it will not offset the overall dynamic of economic growth; carbon emissions will still increase. Increasing energy efficiency will only make energy-intensive development even more attractive.
Dr Warde said: “Since the late 19th century Britain’s energy efficiency has improved considerably. We are more energy efficient now than we were in Shakespeare's time, and far more efficient than during the industrial revolution. Although we are over three times more energy efficient than we were in the 1880s, we each consume about a third more energy, so carbon emissions keep rising.
“History suggests that we cannot rely on the transition to biofuels and renewable energy sources to cut our carbon footprint. To return to an ‘organic economy’ and supply our total energy needs from biofuels, each hectare of European land would have to be 30 times more productive than it was 200 years ago. While the history of our transition from coal to oil-dependency suggests that a significant shift to renewable energy sources would require an extraordinary and unprecedented growth in their use, driven by huge incentives and political willpower.
“The bottom line is that technology can’t contend with the realities of climate change. The only effective solution is to curb consumption. To stand a chance of meeting emissions targets, politicians need to switch their attention from energy efficiency to controls on consumption.”
Dr Warde’s analysis of four centuries of energy consumption and economic growth in England and Wales reveals:
Dr Warde is a reader in Early Modern History at the University of East Anglia and Research Associate at the Centre for History and Economics, University of Cambridge.
The journal History and Policy was founded by historians at the Universities of Cambridge and London and is based in the Centre for Contemporary British History, at the Institute of Historical Research, University of London.
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