It’s Not Carbon Footprint That Matters Most, but Energy Footprint


The global climate never stops changing. Everything changes, even the global climate. Is it getting warmer? Or colder? That’s for the scientists to answer, and it appears that they will take a very long time to come to anything remotely approaching a consensus, which means that all the polarized rhetoric, Gore-bashing, etc. is just so much hot air (not enough to warm the globe, fortunately, though sometimes I wonder).

Is humanity affecting the climate? We’ve affected many other things as our numbers have increased by a factor of 6 in less than two centuries – a blink of an eye in natural time. If our numbers keep increasing as they have, and our energy use keeps increasing as it is, we will affect the global climate at some point, if we aren’t already. That is another point for scientists to study, and about which there will also probably never be complete agreement. Generally, though, if we are affecting the climate, it is as much tied to our energy use as anything.

Energy use is a big deal. Since we discovered fossil fuels and developed fossil-based energy into a huge part of our lifestyles and an enabler of the global economy, space travel, mass media, cheap and wonderful food, huge sparkling (and smelly) cities, and generally to be the source of our success, we have rarely confronted the fact that it is finite. The cheapest and easiest-to-acquire sources of energy have already been tapped, and as we steadily use them up we are left with increasingly expensive sources. As a result our costs have begun to rise – the free market at work.

Rising energy prices get almost everybody’s attention. Today people are starting to more seriously confront the future prospect of having fossil fuels become too expensive to use in the ways we have in the past. It’s a shocking prospect, as we have made ourselves and our society so dependent on fossil fuels (everywhere except in the undeveloped countries) that the current ramping up of cost threatens to change our lives for the worse. We are just not ready with substitute energy sources to take the place of fossil fuels, and until there are some, we will have to pay higher and higher prices, become more and more efficient, or accept a decline in our standards of living (probably a mix of all three).

Carbon footprint is not the most important factor. There is so much talk about carbon footprint, stemming from the huge amount of coverage by mass media of the still-debated climate change, that almost nobody can avoid it, but I hear almost no press coverage around the impending population/energy use crisis. Simply put, we are using too much energy per person, and we have too many people, to achieve a sustainable and lasting world situation any time soon. To hold off increasingly tough times, either we each need to use a lot less energy, or population must decline, and I don’t think anyone wants the latter (at least unless it is by our choice and hurts no one). Interestingly, human carbon production is mostly caused by energy production and use, so using less energy goes a long way towards reducing both demand for energy production and carbon footprint.

Reducing the population is distasteful and unlikely. Reducing the population to a sustainable level, given current forecasts of the rate of exhaustion of energy supplies, will not happen soon enough to make a difference, as a generation lives about 70 years these days. That means that, if family planning, better education, and economic assistance were provided to the fastest growing countries today, the population probably wouldn’t begin to decrease for 70 years. Unfortunately, forecasts for our energy sources indicate we will see fossil fuels become much more expensive a lot sooner than that. The impact increasingly expensive energy could have on agriculture, for example, could show up as famine, especially in those countries with the lowest standards of living and the highest birthrates.

Won’t new energy sources save us? While new sources of energy are being developed, including both renewables like wind, solar, and water power, and extremely efficient non-renewables like fusion power, they will take perhaps 50 years, plus or minus a decade or two, to fill the gap left by dwindling fossil fuels. This leaves us with the challenge of increasing energy efficiency and reducing our energy use in combination, reducing our energy footprint, and dealing with the impacts on our standards of living as best we can. I believe that the next couple of decades will be particularly challenging.  If we don’t successfully develop alternative energy sources, we will be forced to a consumption level of perhaps 5-6% of what we currently use, which suggests no personal vehicles and large scale rolling blackouts, among other undesirable situations.

Some people believe we have huge amounts of untapped oil and coal, and no need to worry. Unfortunately, most of that oil is tied up in forms such as oil shale and oil sand that are extremely expensive and problematic to extract.  Even if those supplies were easy to get, they are not likely to cause lower prices, and ever-higher prices are where dwindling fossil fuel availability will take us in any case.

Let’s change the topic from “carbon footprint” to “energy footprint”. As a result of all this, I am not concerned with the furor over global warming. I could care less about how anyone feels about Al Gore or the “eco-Reich”. All that blather is a waste of energy and a red herring, distracting us from our real problems. From here on we each need to concentrate on our energy footprint. If we can reduce our energy footprints our carbon footprint will follow, and if our carbon emissions are indeed threatening us with serious climate change issues, we will still be doing the right thing for ourselves, our descendants, and the planet.

Smart choices are a key part of the path to better (or not-worse) times, but require knowledge. Now we need scientists to help us understand what things we do and use require the most energy, and how we can reduce our energy footprints on a day-by-day and hour-by-hour basis. The solution is comprised of both the large and small decisions that we each make. In the meantime I will try to ignore the brainless on the right AND left who are too busy hating and fighting each other to face the realities of our future. It would be nice if they would stop proving that they are the humans we could do without, but it’s unlikely.

Political action is needed to speed new technologies to market. The other action we can take, which may be even more effective, is to tell our government representatives that we want them to fund more basic research, and specifically more energy-related research, so substitutes to fossil fuels can be brought on line sooner. Then we need to vote for those who “get it.” If we don’t tell them what we want, they will never know.

As always, I welcome your comments.

To learn more about climate change (and view the ranting of idiots and comments of the seriously knowledgeable in the comments), take a look at Anthony Watts’ Watts Up With That blog.

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2 responses to “It’s Not Carbon Footprint That Matters Most, but Energy Footprint

  1. You are aware that the world birthrate is declining aren’t you? It is expected to be equal to the death rate around 2050.

    And then there is this:

    Fusion Report 13 June 008

  2. Thanks for your comment, Mr. Simon.

    If the birthrate doesn’t equal the death rate until 2050, we will have some very tough times indeed as energy demand far outstrips supply with serious consequences – the point of my article. We need family planning, education improvements, and economic assistance provided to the fast-growing countries by the rest of the world, immediately, to reduce the birthrate a lot more quickly. As it says in the fusion report you linked (thank you for that), while there are people working on different approaches to cheap and plentiful power from fusion, it is still at least two decades away, and perhaps more like five.

    I love the concept of local fusion power generation, as mentioned in the report, but will be interested to see the big utilities and energy companies response. A corporation that thinks it is being cut out of their markets can react in surprising ways, will automatically put its own profitability above the public good, and can lobby government quite powerfully.
    Thanks for your comment – Tim

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