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The Case for Conservation — Richard Heinberg

The Case for Conservation — Richard Heinberg

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Sooner or later we must make conservation the centerpiece of economic and energy policy. Energy conservation is the best strategy for pre-adapting to an energy-constrained future and our best hope for averting economic, social, and ecological ruin. The transition to a more durable and resilient but lower-energy economy will go much better if we plan it, and the shift to a conserver society could hold benefits for people as well as for nature.
Sooner or later we must make conservation the centerpiece of economic and energy policy. Energy conservation is the best strategy for pre-adapting to an energy-constrained future and our best hope for averting economic, social, and ecological ruin. The transition to a more durable and resilient but lower-energy economy will go much better if we plan it, and the shift to a conserver society could hold benefits for people as well as for nature.

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Published by: Post Carbon Institute on Jun 12, 2013
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THE CASE FOR
CONSERVATION
RICHARD HEINBERG
 
This publication is an excerpted chapter from
The Energy Reader: Overdevelopment and the Delusion of Endless Growth
, Tom Butler, Daniel Lerch, and George Wuerthner, eds. (Healdsburg, CA: Watershed Media, 2012).
The Energy Reader 
 is copyright © 2012 by the Foundation for Deep Ecology, and published in collaboration with Watershed Media and Post Carbon Institute.For other excerpts, permission to reprint, and purchasing visit energy-reality.org or contact Post Carbon Institute. Photo: Songquan Deng/Shutterstock.com
about the author
RICHARD HEINBERG
 is senior fellow-in-residence at the Post Carbon Institute and is widely regarded as one of the world’s foremost peak oil educators. He has written scores of essays and articles for a wide range of popular and academic periodicals, and he is the author of ten books including
The End of Growth: Adapting to our New Economic Reality
,
 Powerdown: Options and Actions for a Post-Carbon World 
, and
The Party’s Over: Oil, War and the Fate of Industrial Societies.
Post Carbon Institute | 613 4th Street, Suite 208 | Santa Rosa, California 95404 USA
 
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E
nergy conservation is our best strategy for pre-adapting to an inevitably energy-constrained future. And it may be our only real option for averting economic, social, and ecological ruin. The world will face limits to energy production in the decades ahead regardless of the energy pathway chosen by policy mak-ers. Consider the two extreme options—carbon mini-mum and carbon maximum.If we rebuild our global energy infrastructure to mini-mize carbon emissions, with the aim of combating cli-mate change, this will mean removing incentives and subsidies from oil, coal, and gas and transferring them to renewable energy sources like solar, wind, and geo-thermal. Where fossil fuels are still used, we will need to capture and bury the carbon dioxide emissions.We might look to nuclear power for a bit of help along the way, but it likely wouldn’t provide much. The Fukushima catastrophe in Japan in 2011 highlighted a host of unresolved safety issues, including spent fuel stor-age and vulnerability to extended grid power outages. Even ignoring those issues, atomic power is expensive, and supplies of high-grade uranium ore are problematic.The low-carbon path is littered with other obstacles as well. Solar and wind power are plagued by inter-mittency, a problem that can be solved only with sub-stantial investment in energy storage or long-distance transmission. Renewables currently account for only a tiny portion of global energy, so the low-carbon path requires a high rate of growth in that expensive sector, and therefore high rates of investment. Governments would have to jump-start the transition with regula-tions and subsidies—a tough order in a world where most governments are financially overstretched and investment capital is scarce.For transport, the low-carbon option is even thorn-ier. Biofuels suffer from problems of high cost and the diversion of agricultural land, the transition to electric cars will be expensive and take decades, and electric airliners are not feasible.Carbon capture and storage will also be costly and will likewise take decades to implement on a meaningful scale. Moreover, the
energy
 costs of building and operat-ing an enormous new infrastructure of carbon dioxide pumps, pipelines, and compressors will be substantial, meaning we will be extracting more and more fossil fuels just to produce the same amount of energy useful to society—a big problem if fossil fuels are getting more expensive anyway. So, in the final analysis, a low-carbon future is also very likely to be a lower-energy future.What if we forget about the climate? This might seem to be the path of least resistance. After all, fossil fuels have a history of being cheap and abundant, and we
 
Sooner or later we must make conservation the centerpiece of economic and energy policy. Energy conservation is the best strategy for pre-adapting to an energy-constrained future and our best hope for averting economic, social, and ecological ruin. The transition to a more durable and resilient but lower-energy economy will go much better if we plan it, and the shift to a conserver society could hold benefits for people as well as for nature.

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