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The Battle For More Efficient Energy

There is a war going on. And no, it’s not the one you think. This is a war against energy efficiency. The attack is on two fronts: a battle against energy efficiency standards on the part of the current United States administration which is generally anti-regulation, and an attack on the part of everyone’s favorite new common enemy, the novel coronavirus. The global pandemic has hurt nearly every economic sector, and it’s certainly not doing energy efficiency any favors, either. “The virus, almost by design, hates efficiency of all kinds, energy included,” Axios reported on Monday. To make the argument that “The pandemic is destroying energy efficiency,” Axios references the pandemic’s demolishing of the public transit system by pushing more people to drive separately, the inefficiency of hybrid and virtual school models, in which every student is creating their own energy footprint within their own home instead of sharing resources in the classroom, and the major resurgence of single-use plastics as a sanitary measure and as part of the huge uptick in ordering takeout and delivery. 

And then there are the pandemic-related inefficiencies that are truly all about energy: the near-total halt of retrofitting as people cut out any contact seen as unnecessary, “Our society’s immediate chaotic response  [...] such as big buildings sitting mostly empty but still guzzling energy, and public transit still moving but carrying few passengers,” and long term response like outdoor heating to facilitate social distancing in wintertime and “flights to nowhere.”

This all has surprisingly grave consequences. While the topic of energy efficiency is decidedly un-sexy and seems trivial compared to the global energy transition, our energy efficiency actually has a massive impact on the climate. “Using energy more efficiently accounts for the largest share — nearly 40% — of the reductions in heat-trapping emissions needed to meet the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement,” reports Axios.

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In fact, India has led an emissions-curbing campaign with energy efficiency as a huge central tenet, and the subcontinent has managed to surpass their own carbon footprint goals in large part thanks to the humble energy-efficient lightbulb. “India’s LED transition is estimated to save more than 40 terawatt hours (TWh) of electricity each year – roughly enough to power 37 million average Indian households or the whole of Denmark for one year,” The Conversation reported earlier this month.

In fact, while easily overlooked, energy efficiency is such an important step in the global battles against catastrophic climate change that the International Energy Agency has deemed it “the first fuel of a sustainable global energy system.” And, for quite a while, the world had been doing a pretty commendable job of raising global energy efficiency rates--but over the last few years it’s been slowing down, and now policy and a pandemic have all but brought any progress to a grinding halt. “In 2018, primary energy intensity - an important indicator of how much energy is used by the global economy - improved by just 1.2%, the slowest rate since 2010, reported the IEA. This was a marked drop from 2017’s 1.7% improvement and was the third consecutive year of declining numbers. “It was also well below the average 3% improvement consistent with the IEA's Efficient World Strategy, first described in Energy Efficiency 2018.” And this year is on track to be one of the worst.

“Overall, we reckon investment in energy efficiency will be down 12-15% in 2020,” the International Energy Agency’s Brian Motherway was quoted as saying by Axios. As the U.S. prepares for its post-pandemic recovery, the central role of energy efficiency is not one we can afford to overlook.

By Haley Zaremba for

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Haley Zaremba

Haley Zaremba is a writer and journalist based in Mexico City. She has extensive experience writing and editing environmental features, travel pieces, local news in the… More