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Don’t fear growth – it’s no longer the enemy of the planet

 

Global Energy Consumption

‘Global energy consumption has fallen since 1970 while the economy has nearly trebled in size.’ Illustration: Andrzej Krauze

 

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Don’t fear growth – it’s no longer the enemy of the planet” was written by Chris Huhne, for The Guardian on Sunday 24th August 2014 17.15 UTC

Until now the story of human prosperity has been all about cheap, abundant energy. However, something big has been happening. For the first time in history, we are growing richer while using less energy. That is unalloyed good news for budgets, incomes and the planet. We have reached a technological tipping point.

From the middle ages, living standards just edged up at a snail’s pace, and we did little damage to the planet, because growing forests absorbed carbon from wood burning. The population was small. We led lives that were, in Hobbes’ phrase, “nasty, brutish and short”. Then we started burning coal on a large scale in the 18th century, and the industrial revolution made the graph look like a hockey stick: suddenly incomes were doubling in decades, following centuries of stability. After allowing for inflation, real GDP in England and Wales doubled from 1830 to 1864, again by 1898, and again by 1951, despite two world wars.

Gross domestic product is a measure of activity, not welfare. But there is plenty of evidence of real progress. If life is better than death, this surge of growth was more good news. Male life expectancy at birth in England and Wales in 1841 was just 40 years. By 1950, it was 66. On the latest figures for 2012, it is now 79 for men and 83 for women.

This unprecedented prosperity and welfare was inextricably linked to the burning of fossil fuels, and therefore to the beginning of carbon emissions and global warming. And we are paying with the steady rise in carbon and temperatures compared with pre-industrial levels.

This is why so many green thinkers have rightly been suspicious of economic growth: the curve of rising living standards has been tracked by the curve of rising energy use from coal, oil and gas. The simple answer was green puritanism: change our lifestyle. Don the hair-shirt. Stop consuming more. Stop growth – and therefore stop pollution.

The good news is that we can increasingly see a future where technology does most of the change for us. Readers of the Digest of United Kingdom energy statistics will find an extraordinary table in the new edition: the two-century link between growth and energy has broken. The UK economy has doubled in real terms since 1985, but total energy consumption is exactly the same as it was in that year. Indeed, energy consumption has fallen since 1970 while the economy has nearly trebled in size.

Of course, industry is a big user of energy, and a lot of heavy manufacturing has migrated to China and other low-labour cost parts of the world. Global energy use and carbon emissions are rising because of population and income growth, but the energy-saving trend is visible even in developing countries. Global GDP per unit of energy is 35% higher than it was in 1990.

Carbon Emissions

Photograph: Rui Vieira/PA

What has been going on? Cars are far more efficient, even though larger. A good supermini now runs more than 70 miles per gallon of fuel, whereas the most efficient mini in 1965 did 43 miles per gallon. With hybrids and fully electric vehicles, there is more fuel economy coming. We are also taking the train more: electric trains run better than diesel. Nearly two-thirds of our energy bills go on home heating, and our boilers are better and homes more insulated: “Which?” estimated recently that a new condensing boiler will save 39% over an old heavy boiler. For a typical British semi-detached house, that is a saving of £460 a year. Our household items use much less electricity than before. A fridge-freezer now uses half the electricity of a similar sized model 20 years ago.

 

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