Editorial: Arthurian Legend Meets Climate Constraints

July 01, 2006
July/August 2006
A version of this article appears in the July/August 2006 issue of Home Energy Magazine.
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        On April 28, I attended a remarkable event at the University of California Berkeley campus honoring the energy efficiency achievements and sheer endurance of Dr.Arthur Rosenfeld on the occasion of his 80th birthday. I was both humbled and inspired as the nation’s leading thinkers in the energy and climate fields—John Holdren, Rob Socolow, Stephen Schneider, and many others—celebrated the Rosenfeld Effect and the many efficiency successes that Art has helped to launch. Building efficiency standards, low-e windows, electronic ballasts, CFLs—all of these amazing achievements owe at least part of their success to Art and the work that Home Energy’s readers have done to help them succeed in the marketplace.
        But an unmistakable undercurrent ran through most of the talks.What we have achieved is wonderful and absolutely necessary, but it is not sufficient— not by a country mile. Energy efficiency successes so far have prevented new power plants from being built and stabilized utility bills, but they do not come close to addressing the magnitude of the climate change challenge that we face. Staying the course of current energy efficiency activities would mean utterly failing to prevent climatic catastrophe within our lifetimes.
        Arctic sea ice and the Greenland ice sheet are disappearing on our watch. Sea levels are steadily rising beyond any levees we might build to protect coastal cities. Category 4 and 5 hurricanes are marching farther northward each summer and may reach Washington, DC and New York City. There will be widespread depletion of affordable fossil fuels and almost certainly there will be mandatory limits on their usage.Yet we, as a country, are still floundering in a slow-paced transition to more sustainable alternatives.
        On the surface, it seems like we’re making excellent progress with energy efficiency. CFL sales are booming. More states than ever are adopting building and appliance standards. As Art himself showed at the Rosenfeld Effect event, average annual electricity usage of new U.S. refrigerators has fallen by 75% since 1974 in response to labeling programs, utility incentives, and mandatory efficiency standards.
        But what if we ask the refrigerator question a different way? What has happened to yearly global CO2 emissions from all residential refrigerators since 1974? Refrigerators have grown steadily larger over the last 30 years. Relatively inefficient side-by-side designs with through-the-door ice have become more popular. There are more fridges per household, especially in newly electrified parts of the developing world.
        Most importantly, there are 2.5 billion more people on the earth than there were in 1974, and most of them want a place to store cold food. We shouldn’t begrudge them that, but we should be realistic about the resulting environmental impacts. While U.S. sales of full-sized fridges are less than 5 million new units per year, global sales have soared to 81 million units per year and continue to rise 4% annually. In total, these effects utterly swamp the efficiency gain, especially when many parts of the world do not insist on refrigerators as efficient as those shipped to the United States, Europe, and Japan.
        This example of one our best energy efficiency successes illustrates that we should be careful about patting ourselves on the back too much and risking complacency. Many of us have long celebrated California’s success at holding its per-capita electricity use constant since the 1970s, even as national per-capita use has marched ever higher. But the climate doesn’t judge success by percapita trends. For climate stability, the relevant question is,“How are we doing with total electricity consumption and CO2 emissions?”
        From 1960 to 2006, California’s total electricity use increased by more than a factor of 5. Yes, the rate of increase is slowing, but California still consistently uses more electricity and emits about 1% more greenhouse gases with each passing year, in spite of being a national leader in energy efficiency and renewables. The state will miss the climate stabilization goals Governor Schwarzenegger recently announced unless energy efficiency improves radically and rapidly across the board.
        So what needs to be done right now both in California and across the country? Public utility commissions and all utilities need to increase efficiency program funding dramatically across all end uses and program types. DOE and state governments need to adopt appliance efficiency standards that promptly capture all costeffective energy savings, including the value of preventing CO2 emissions. Our governments no longer have the luxury of offering multiple compromises in standards’ stringency, scope, and timetables to satisfy manufacturers’ concerns. Efforts to retrofit existing homes and build zeroenergy new homes need to ramp up radically and with unprecedented urgency.
        Paul Hawken once wryly described modern civilization as being “in the middle of a once-in-a-billion-year blowout sale of hydrocarbons.” The Rosenfeld Effect speakers underscored that message with consistency, passion, and panache. Climate change is the global challenge of our era, dwarfing past efforts to eradicate disease, end the cold war, and put a man on the moon.
        The Rosenfeld Effect event underscored one other very important lesson: what you do matters enormously to the fate of our planet. Art Rosenfeld has had and continues to have a huge impact on energy matters, but we need many multiples of Art.Your passion and your devotion to raising energy efficiency are desperately needed. Get busy. We don’t have a moment to waste.

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