Pursuing Sustainability Through Economic Adversity

Posted on August 25, 2009. Filed under: Economic development, General |


From a commentary by Michael Vickerman, RENEW executive director:

Continuing a trend that began in 2008, America’s energy appetite will continue to decline through 2009, according to the U.S. Energy Information Agency (EIA). The reductions are cutting across all primary energy sources: petroleum, coal, and natural gas. These projections appear in the July edition of EIA’s Short-Term Energy Outlook.

In the same document, EIA anticipates a 2% decline in this year’s electricity use, following a 1.6% dip in 2008. The ongoing reduction in electricity demand is having a particularly pronounced effect on coal consumption, which is projected to drop by 5.2% from year-earlier totals. Between the sharp pullback in industrial demand for electricity and low natural gas prices, the current market for coal is very weak.

Needless to say, as fossil fuel consumption goes, so go carbon dioxide emissions. Given EIA’s expectations that the ongoing pullback in energy demand will persist through this year, there should be a continued slackening in greenhouse gases discharged into the atmosphere. If you add this year’s projected reductions to last year’s recorded decline, the overall drop in annual CO2 emissions from 2007 could be as much as 5%. That’s a far larger reduction than what would be accomplished under any of the various cap-and-trade proposals being debated in Congress.

While energy efficiency spending and stricter building codes are good policies for moderating demand, their effects are modest compared with the consequences of a full-blown economic downturn. The current situation raises an important question: what is the value of displacing a ton of CO2 when economic conditions are sufficiently bleak to guarantee future declines in emissions regardless of new climate change policy initiatives?

From a climate change perspective then, current economic conditions present a kind of a good news-bad news situation. On the plus side, Americans are driving less, flying less, buying fewer disposable items made in foreign countries, and building fewer energy sinks like houses, hotels, and megamalls. This slowdown provides us with an opportunity to conserve fossil fuel supplies over a longer period of time, reduce our vulnerability to traumatic events occasioned by human disturbance of the atmosphere, and deploy capital to build up more localized and less high-maintenance economic arrangements that can be sustained over the long haul.

Indeed, out of this contraction could emerge a slower-paced and more sustainable America, one less dependent on the kindness of Middle East petrostates and hail Mary legislation from Congress. A broad-based movement to invest in community-based sustainable energy would in turn have a far more positive and lasting effect on our energy economy than would a Green New Deal that extends the presumption that the American way of life is non-negotiable, as former Vice President Dick Cheney would have us believe. Energy sustainability is an easier goal to achieve when everyone takes part in the project.

But there’s no denying the substantial loss of investment capital available for sustainable energy development. As spending is curtailed and debt is paid down, dollars that could underwrite wind, solar and bioenergy installations are bring taken out of circulation. Moreover, the prices of competing fuels like coal, natural gas and liquid propane have fallen substantially from their 2008 highs, as has the wholesale price of electricity. Many of the renewable energy proposals that looked good on paper 12 months ago are now in hiatus, waiting for the economic headwinds to subside.

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    A statewide nonprofit dedicated to promoting economically and environmentally sustainable energy policies and practices in Wisconsin.

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