In my experience energy conservation is often given short shrift as an effect means of carbon emissions reduction, especially by opponents of the concept of anthropogenic global warming (AGW), and by people with an economics bent who see conservation in an anti-progress framework. In this framework, conservation is seen as an idea promoted by “hairshirt”-wearing hippies, who want us all to regress to the stone-age. I think a lot of economists who support mitigation for AGW see conservation in this light, while opponents of the science of AGW, who often frame AGW-science as a hippy conspiracy against capitalism, see conservation as the ultimate goal of this conspiracy and thus A Very Bad Thing. Here at the faustusnotes academy of Climate Science, we’re not interested in the organized opponents of AGW science, whose lofty interest in the purity of science has always been a front for their political goals[1]. Some of the economists who look dubiously on energy conservation as a mitigation tactic are, I think, recent converts to AGW science, but in general the low regard in which conservation is held as a mitigation tactic is, I think, simply a reflection of the bias in modern economics and politics towards the politics of eternal growth[2]. The main criticisms of conservation seem to be that a) it won’t work, b) it will affect our quality of life (we will all have to sit about in the cold and the dark, is often the type of line used) and c) it will have significant economic effects.

However, a recent natural experiment in Japan suggests to me that conservation can be an extremely effective way of controlling emissions with limited economic effects, limited effects on our quality of life and general community support. After the Great Tohoku Earthquake and the destruction of the Fukushima nuclear plant, Tokyo lost about 20% of its electric power generation capacity[3]. Immediately after the earthquake there were rolling electricity blackouts for a few weeks, and then a campaign of voluntary energy conservation measures. Currently we are all doing setsuden, energy conservation, and every day on the train we are presented with charts of our success for the day, presented in terms of the percentage of peak capacity that we have reduced our usage to by the hour. The plan is to keep this figure below 80% across the whole of the day, because brownouts will happen if we go much above 80%. In general, except on a few hotter days, the figures are below 80%, peaking at 75-85% during the busiest part of the day. I don’t know if this means that energy use has been redistributed – I presume some has – but there are large parts of our urban baseload electricity, especially cooling, that can’t be redistributed, so I’m presuming that this chart I see every day indicates an overall large reduction of energy use to about 80% of the previous daily peak, and I would guess therefore to somewhere betweeen 85% and 95% of the previous daily average.

The effect on my lifestyle has, however, been minimal to negligible. The only time I notice setsuden is when I go into some shops and they’re a little warmer, or when the train turns up with all its internal lights off (during the day only). A lot of neon signs have been turned down too, and other minor things like that, but basically the major aspects of everyday life here – transport, computer usage, shopping, eating out, and sports that I do – are largely unaffected. Oh, and the heated toilets have all been turned off. But in general, the effects have been quite limited. I suspect that this is, rather paradoxically,a  result of the Japanese economy’s investment in heavy engineering. Although steel mills use huge amounts of power, this also means that if they try, even small improvements in energy efficiency will lead to large reductions in energy use at the margins. It may be that in an economy like Australia’s where energy use is more focussed on personal consumption/services, the ability to achieve conservation goals without affecting quality of life might be lower.

I think this process has some obvious economic benefits too. With most people – even love hotels! – engaged in setsuden, there is limited competitive disadvantage for individual companies, and so their conservation efforts will be reflected in reduced costs. These reduced costs will, I presume, be partly offset by an increase in the cost of energy at some point, because supply has dropped – but so has demand, so maybe this will balance out. Also, the energy sector has lost a nuclear plant, so the remainder of the sector is now using a higher proportion of carbon- and import-intensive power (largely natural gas). I presume these are now producing more, so the overall effect on emissions will be neutral. But if the plant that had shut down were a natural gas plant, we would see an overall reduction in imports of natural gas and carbon emissions, leading to an improvement in Japan’s balance of trade which would be even greater if we were in a carbon-trading economy. This is a particularly powerful lesson for China, which is importing high-emissions energy sources (coal). It’s also a useful lesson for Europe, which is increasingly dependent on Russian gas. Reducing demand for Russian gas would lower the price of gas, and weaken Russia’s political levers in the west.

The big issue for Japan is summer, when this electricity conservation will be much harder to maintain and may even be deadly, leading to increased cases of heatstroke. Last summer was evil, and if this summer is anything like it setsuden may be a big problem. But from an emissions point of view, achieving a 20% reduction for 6 months of the year is a huge achievement, and although my guess is the reduction in average energy usage in Japan wasn’t that high, with appropriate investment in energy conservation methods plus the types of personal change seen here, I think this could easily be attained within a few years.

The long-term results on Japan’s economy won’t be known for about a year, and I guess they’ll never be known clearly since the effect of the shutdown is confounded by the effect of the tsunami. But my guess is that the economic effects of the shutdown of that plant are going to be seen to be minor, even though its effects on Eastern Japan’s electricity supply are known to have been quite strong. Overall, this gives us three important lessons:

  • Energy conservation may well be a very effective way of reducing carbon emissions, especially in economies with large industrial sectors dependent on emissions-intensive power sources (i.e. China and the US, the major emitters). It may have limited lifestyle effects, and be neutral in its effects on economic growth even when the effect is very strong. The short-term cost of implementing this policy may be nothing more than the cost of a few months of advertising
  • Contrary to a lot of the claims made by the anti-AGW movement and some economists, a simple and immediate policy to reduce emissions, of mandating the closure of 20% of all electricity generation[4], would not be the economic and social catastrophe that people think – it wouldn’t push us back into the stone age and we won’t all be shivering in the dark in our hairshirts. In fact the main sacrifices we’ll be making are a bit of temperature control, slightly darker love hotels [is this a sacrifice?], and cold toilet seats [this is, quite literally, a bummer, but we all have to do our bit]. Obviously in some seasons this conservation process is more difficult, but in general its achievable without “threatening our way of life,” as some have phrased it
  • When economists talk about scarcity one should be extremely skeptical. Scarcity isn’t scarcity if it’s brought about purely by our own profligacy. At the point where economists are telling us we need to increase prices to manage our “scarce resources” when some non-negligible proportion of those resources are being burnt to keep the toilet seat warm, they’re using a loaded word to describe something else. We need to increase prices to manage our profligate overuse of resources that really aren’t very scarce at all

Finally, it should be noted that the change achieved in Japan was made without passing any laws or raising any electricity prices, and it happened very fast. Meanwhile, in the face of a looming climatic catastrophe the world has been debating for years what to do, and the main suggestion from Western economists has been that we need to raise prices to force people to change their behaviour. This is an example of the economic framework of the rational consumer and market solutions overtaking good sense. While raising prices is a very useful and effective method for achieving rationing, it’s not the only way, and it is still a form of rationing. Perhaps a little more creative and diverse range of ideas can be considered, and we can look beyond the narrow frame of the current debate.

fn1: This is most clearly seen in the resounding silence of the “climategate” critics in light of the recent revelations about the dodgy behaviour of their own side. Edward Wegman, a prominent statistician in the anti-AGW movement, is in serious trouble – as is his employer, George Mason University – over revelations that an article he wrote criticizing peer review corruption in climate science was a) plagiarized from wikipedia and b) published only through a process of peer review corruption. But where are the “climategate” critics, with their lofty concern for the integrity of science and the peer review process? Out to lunch, apparently.

fn2: I mean “bias” here in the strictest definition, not the perjorative sense. Think “oh dear, modern political discourse has a bias towards democracy.”

fn3: What this meant exactly when we were told this I’m not sure. I assume it means “peak generation capacity,” rather than average; but I don’t have a clear idea. For this post I’m assuming “peak,” since it leads to more conservative results than “average”.

fn4: This is not a serious policy prescription by the faustusnotes academy, btw.