Revisiting ‘Thinking the unthinkable’

In October, I wrote a post which gave an overview of a (failed) bid to JISC.

“What will happen to the provision of a technology dependent education when energy consumption is restricted by recurring interruptions in supply and significant spikes in costs?” This project aims to address this question by re-framing ‘Sustainable ICT’ within the context of an imminent crisis in energy supply. As we increasingly turn to ICT to enhance, support and deliver education and research, the prospect of an energy crisis within the next ten years becomes crucially important to our sector, its partners and stakeholders. The project will use JISC’s Scenario Planning tools to address this crisis and examine the wider energy context, which fuels the UK’s industrialised and globalising model of Higher Education.

I have added the feedback I received as a postscript to the original post. Needless to say I was disappointed that it did not receive funding at that time, but very encouraged by the positive response I received from the evaluation panel.

Since submitting the bid, I have continued to pursue this area of research and wanted to reflect on the last four months of intensively reading around the subject of energy, climate change and, to a lesser extent, the resilience of HEIs. I have written about some of this in other posts, but think that a summary update would be useful for me to gather my thinking and perhaps be of interest to you, too. I should say upfront, that today, as I write, I’m not especially optimistic about the ability for the tertiary education sector to continue in its current form beyond the end of this decade (mainly due to increasing economic pressures) and hope that I offer enough reasons below to motivate other people to join Richard Hall and I, in pursuing this research further.

Peak Oil (or an oil ‘supply crunch’)

As I was writing the original research bid, The UK Energy Research Centre published their Global Oil Depletion Report, a massive survey of recent literature on the subject of Peak Oil. They concluded:

On the basis of current evidence we suggest that a peak of conventional oil production before 2030 appears likely and there is a significant risk of a peak before 2020.

As I’ve noted before, there is reason to suggest that oil production has already peaked, since supply has effectively plateaued  since 2005, despite the annual price of oil steadily increasing in the midst of significant price volatility.

Since the UKERC report, there have been other notable reports which forecast a peak in oil production by 2020. For example, yesterday the Peak Oil Task Force, a group of six UK companies, including Virgin, Scottish and Southern Energy and Stagecoach, published a report which warns of the “urgent, clear and present danger” of an ‘oil crunch’ by 2015:

The next five years will see us face another crunch – the oil crunch. This time, we do have the chance to prepare. The challenge is to use that time well. As we reach maximum oil extraction rates, the era of cheap oil is behind us. We must plan for a world in which oil prices are likely to be both higher and more volatile and where oil price shocks have the potential to destabilise economic, political and social activity. Virtually every sector of our economy is still dependent on oil.

This follows several other recent reports and warnings. For example, a Chatham House report forecasts a 2013 peak, the NGO, Global Witness, warns of an imminent supply crunch; Petrobras, Brazil’s oil company, a 2012 oil crunch; the CEO of Total SA, forecasts a peak by 2015Shell’s CEO likewise forecasts an end to easily accessible oil by 2015Chevron are vague on the date (2012?), but issued [PDF] a clear warning in 2005; the former VC of  Saudi Aramco, the world’s largest producer of oil, has said that oil production has peaked and is currently on a plateau. The International Energy Agency (IEA), representing OECD countries, has warned of an oil crunch from 2011, with production peaking by the end of the decade.

The conventional economic theory of demand destruction caused by the rising price of oil has had very little effect on the amount of oil consumed and conversely, price rises and therefore opportunity for investment over the long-term and incentives to produce more to sell in the short-term, have not resulted in a rise in oil production. Between 2002-5, “for every dollar increase in oil prices, three year cumulative global crude oil production increased at 167 mb per dollar.” However, between 2006-8… “for every dollar increase in oil prices, three year cumulative global crude oil production fell at 15 mb per dollar, again relative to the 2005 rate.”1 Similarly, the ex-VC of Saudi Aramco has said:

The evidence is that in spite of the increases – very large increases – in oil prices over the last four years, we haven’t been able to match that with increasing capacity. So, essentially, we are on a plateau.

Energy Security

In the original bid to JISC, I framed the problems of Peak Oil and Climate Change as potentially serious impacts on the operation of HEIs and therefore the provision of tertiary education in the UK. Energy security is a broad term that covers the supply and distribution of the different fuels that we need to fuel a growing economy. Global economic growth (GDP) is closely coupled to the global consumption of oil, and while there are indications that the demand for oil by OECD countries has started to decline, global demand is still expected to rise because of the demand by developing countries.

So we have a situation where the global demand for oil will outstrip the available supply of oil, therefore impacting on economic growth. On today’s Financial Times ‘Energy Source‘ blog, Geologist, Colin Campbell was quoted from 2006, saying:

I think we are facing an oil price shock, 100 or 200 dollars a barrel, an economic recession that cuts demand, and I will not be at all surprised if a fall in demand would make the price collapse again. So we might be back to 20 or 30 dollars a barrel next year perhaps. And so you have a price shock, a recession, a recovery, hits again the falling capacity limit, another price shock. And so I think that in the next few years, we have a sequence of vicious circles and gradually the reality of the situation will filtered through. We are on for a very volatile few years with enormous economic consequences.

The FT reporter thinks this view is “on the money” and I am inclined to agree, too.

Peak Oil is not the only energy security problem that we face over the next decade. The year 2016 is commonly given as the point where our national infrastructure, in it’s current form, can no longer supply the energy we demand.

Planned closures of ageing nuclear plant and the removal, by the end of 2015, of a significant amount of coal and oil-fired power stations under European environmental legislation is likely to lead to a large fall in the electricity capacity margin.2

Ofgem’s recent Project Discovery project produced four market scenarios for the UK’s energy future. Their worse case scenario, as I’ve touched on before, is a ‘dash for energy’ scenario3, where “the recession proves short-lived. Demand bounces back strongly and then increases over time, although investment levels take some time to become re-established following the hiatus caused by the credit crisis.” The costs of this to consumers would be a 60% increase in energy bills by 2020.4

However, in December, after consultations with energy companies and academics, the Chief Executive of Ofgem thought that this was “too optimistic”. Conversely, earlier this month, Ofgem issued a warning that bills could rise by 20% over the next decade, presumably because they do not now expect a ‘dash for energy’ scenario, but rather an economic outlook of slow growth.

Ofgem conclude that we have a narrow window until 2013 to implement policy to address supply security from 2016:

Although our scenarios do not indicate concerns over supply security until beyond the middle of the current decade, the timescales required to secure finance, mobilise supply chains and deliver the infrastructure needed suggests that the period around 2012 and 2013 could be important for investment decisions critical to future secure and sustainable energy supplies. Hence, there is a window of opportunity between now and then to implement any policy measures that may be necessary to make sure that investment takes place in a timely fashion.5

Whichever way I am able to understand it, the picture of energy security for the UK over the next decade looks uncertain and any response, costly. Dieter Helm, Prof. of Energy Policy at Oxford, thinks we’re in a mess and calls for “a more imaginative approach to infrastructure… The Victorians did it: the current generation needs to repeat it.”6

The rebound effect of (technological) efficiencies

One of the measures to improve the security of our energy supply is to improve our efficiency of energy use. This effectively allows us to do the same (or more), with less energy than before. The subject of energy efficiency is also closely related to our carbon reduction targets. The 2008 EU directive on Climate Change sees energy efficiencies as “one of the key ways in which CO2 emission savings can be realised.” (p. 8) The target is a reduction of 20% by 2020.

However, there is a problem when claiming absolute targets for energy efficiency, which has been studied by the UK Energy Research Centre in a 2007 review of over 500 studies in this area. The report is called, An Assessment of the evidence for economy-wide energy savings from improved energy efficiency, otherwise known as The Rebound Effect Report.

As the report notes, there have been claims in the past that technological efficiencies result in absolute and predictable decreases in energy use, just as there have been claims that such efficiencies result in more energy being used (in the latter case, this is referred to as ‘backfire’). The basic point is that while technological efficiencies in the use of energy are real, the overall result is that only part of the actual efficiency is realised in society. This is because while we save energy through efficiencies, we spend part of those savings on other activities that use up energy.

An example of a rebound effect would be the driver who replaces a car with a fuel-efficient model, only to take advantage of its cheaper running costs to drive further and more often. Or a family that insulates their loft and puts the money saved on their heating bill towards an overseas holiday.

This was first identified as the Jevons Paradox, which I have written about before. The usefulness of the UKERC report is that it demonstrates the complexity of the issue, but also that it usefully summarises the individual and social consequences of efficiencies. Efficiencies can be divided into those that have a direct rebound effect and those that have an indirect, or economy-wide, rebound effect.

An example of a direct rebound effect quoted above is where a family drive more because they’ve bought a more fuel efficient car. The report concludes that in particular circumstances up to 30% of the intended energy ‘saved’ through efficiency might be ‘spent’ in this way, particularly in areas such as transport and heating/cooling.

An example of an indirect rebound effect quoted above is where a family insulates their loft and then uses the savings in heating costs towards a holiday. The report is hesitant to draw conclusions in this area, but indicates that up to 50% (perhaps more) of the intended energy ‘saved’ in particular circumstances through efficiency might be ‘spent’ in this way. Some studies suggest much higher numbers which, they say, should be taken with caution.

The UKERC conclude that the alarming claims of ‘backfire’, where energy efficiency measures result in an overall increase in energy used, cannot be verified but should still be taken seriously. There is more evidence of this occurring when technologies are pervasive (i.e. the steam engine or electric motor).

The conclusions of the report are now of great interest to me and have confirmed the direction my research was beginning to go: that is, the relationship between energy and economic growth. I mentioned this in my original ‘Thinking the unthinkable’ post, in terms of how economic growth, the use of energy and the production of emissions are all coupled. The UKERC report puts it like this:

In developed countries, energy use as conventionally measured has grown more slowly than the economy as a whole. From this, it is generally concluded that technical change has improved the efficiency with which energy is used and thereby helped to ‘decouple’ energy consumption from economic growth. However once different energy sources are weighted by their relative ‘quality’ or economic productivity, the coupling between energy consumption and economic growth appears far stronger. Taken together, the evidence reviewed in this report suggests that: a) the scope for substituting other inputs for energy is relatively limited; b) much technical change has historically increased energy intensity; c) energy may play a more important role in economic growth than is conventionally assumed; and d) economy-wide rebound effects may be larger than is conventionally assumed.

Claims of a decoupling of energy consumption and emissions from economic growth virtually always refer to a relative decoupling, rather than an absolute decoupling.

It’s vital to distinguish between ‘relative’ and ‘absolute’ decoupling. Relative decoupling refers to a situation where resource impacts decline relative to the GDP. Impacts may still rise, but they do so more slowly than the GDP. The situation in which resource impacts decline in absolute terms is called ‘absolute decoupling’. Needless to say, this latter situation is essential if economic activity is to remain within ecological limits.

Evidence for declining resource intensities (relative decoupling) is relatively easy to identify. The energy required to produce a unit of economic output declined by a third in the last thirty years, for instance. Global carbon intensity fell from around one kilo per dollar of economic activity to just under 770 grams per dollar.

Evidence for overall reductions in resource throughput (absolute decoupling) is much harder to find. The improvements in energy (and carbon) intensity noted above were offset by increases in the scale of economic activity over the same period. Global carbon emissions from energy use have increased by 40% since only 1990 (the Kyoto base year).7

Despite efficiencies, energy use goes up

Despite efficiencies, energy use per capita goes up

Despite efficiencies, emissions go up

Meeting our carbon targets

While the ‘rebound effect’ may have some implications for our energy security in terms of how efficiency measures may or may not safeguard against a scenario of oil depletion and overall supply disruptions,  there are very clear implications for our carbon reduction targets. One of the issues, perhaps the biggest issue, is that of population increases, a subject that is often recognised in reports, but skirted over because of the seemingly hopeless task and political sensitivity of addressing it. Nevertheless, it needs to be recognised that population increases do contribute to overall energy use and emissions and need to be accounted for in calculations that inform Climate Change policy.

Richard Hall has recently begin to address this, referring to Ehrlich-Holdren’s sustainability equation

I = P.A.T

That is, the impact of human activities (I) is determined by the overall population (P), the level of affluence (A) and the level of technology (T). Quoting Tim Jackson, Richard writes:

However, a key problem is the dynamic of efficiency vs scale. Jackson notes (p. 3) that “Technology is an efficiency factor in the equation. Population and affluence are scaling factors. Even as the efficiency of technology improves, affluence and population scale up the impacts. And the overall result depends on improving technological efficiency fast enough to outrun the scale effects of affluence and population.” So these factors are not independent and “appear to be in a self-reinforcing positive feedback between affluence and technology, potentially – and I emphasise potentially – geared in the direction of rising impact”

A recent paper I have found helpful in terms of thinking about the UK’s Climate Change Act (2008) concludes that the Act is certain to fail, showing how the target of an 80% reduction in emissions by 2050 (and 34% by 2022) has no historical precedent. What I found useful, regardless of whether the targets are practicably achievable, are the author’s observations on population growth and economic growth (GDP).

In summary, Pielke shows that the UK’s population is predicted to grow by 0.7% per year to 2031, which would mean that the population will be around 67 million people. Extending this to 2050, we would have a population of about 82 million. He warns the reader that population growth forecasts are “notoriously uncertain, so caution should be used when using them, as actual future populations could be higher or lower.” (p. 2) He then considers economic activity and observes that the UK economy averaged 2.5% GDP growth (inflation adjusted) between 1990-2007. Combining the 0.7% population increase with a more modest 2% GDP growth rate, implies a per capita growth rate of 1.3% per year. Finally, Pielke factors in technological change and notes that according to the US Energy Information Agency, “from 2000 to 2006 UK energy efficiency increased by about 2% per year, while the carbon intensity of the energy supply was largely unchanged.” (p. 2)

Because the effects of technological change (including changes in the economy toward services and away from energy intensive industry) just about balanced the overall growth of the economy for the past decade, the UK has seen little growth in its overall carbon dioxide emissions (although the UK National Audit Office recently observed that the lack of growth in emissions is also due to accounting, as some economic activities, like air travel, are not included in official emissions numbers.

Following Dieter Helm, I’ve noted before that this method of accounting creates an illusion8 around our official emissions figures, transforming a reported 15% reduction into a 19% increase in emissions since 1990.

It seems to me that Pielke’s observations complement Tim Jackon’s reference to the I = P.A.T equation as well as the conclusions of the UKERC’s Rebound Effect report. That is, technological efficiency, although vitally important, does not, as we might expect, lead to an overall reduction in emissions or energy consumption. It merely helps balance the impacts of population growth and consumption led economic growth. Of course, if we also take into account our emissions and energy use that we outsource to industrialising countries such as China, the balance is lost in favour of rising energy use and emissions.

What is clear to me is that technology is being used as an excuse to avoid the greater issues of a broken and destructive (suicidal?) political economy and the consequences of an aspirational and growing population. Tim Jackson puts this nicely:

The IPAT equation appears to offer us broadly three ways of achieving overall reductions in energy demand (for example). One, reduce the population – not a popular choice. Two, reduce the level of affluence (again not high on political priorities – although an interesting avenue to explore at various levels as I shall suggest in a minute). And three, improve technology: specifically to increase the energy efficiency of income generation, to reduce the energy intensity of the economy.

Given the unpopularity and political intractability of routes one and two, it’s perhaps not surprising to find the mainstream response is to adopt route three as the preferred approach. Indeed an examination of the history of international policy from Brundtland onwards reveals quite clearly how route 3 allowed the world to steer an uneasy path between the demands of the North for population control in the South and the demands of the South for reduced affluence in the North. Option 3 emerges as an apparently politically neutral way through a tricky impasse.9

Our technological subservience to economic growth

Technology emerges as an apparently politically neutral way through a tricky impasse.

This single line encapsulates a great deal of what I have been trying to understand through writing these posts over the last few months and it links to a question Richard raises in his recent post:  Is this all subservient to a view of economic growth? The answer has to be yes. The production and consumption/use of technology is not politically neutral. As we have seen, all the time we pursue economic growth, technology serves the objectives of capitalism. This is evident in the long history of capitalism, just as it is evident in Higher Education today.

In short, society is faced with a profound dilemma. To resist growth is to risk economic and social collapse. To pursue it is to endanger the ecosystems on which we depend for long-term survival.

For the most part, this dilemma goes unrecognised in mainstream policy or in public debate. When reality begins to impinge on the collective consciousness, the best suggestion to hand is that we can somehow ‘decouple’ growth from its material impacts.

Never mind that decoupling isn’t happening. Never mind that no such economy has ever existed. Never mind that all our institutions and incentive structures continually point in the opposite direction. The dilemma, once recognised, looms so dangerously over our future that we are desperate to believe in miracles. Technology will save us.

Capitalism is good at technology. So let’s just keep the show on the road and hope for the best.10

Despite the genuine and overwhelming challenges of energy depletion and climate change, technological development as a means to solve these problems, is merely a sideshow. Technological innovation and the resulting improvements in energy efficiency and lower emissions are vital responses, but do little more than offset the exponential problems of an increasing population and economic growth. I am hesitant to call population growth a problem all the while the relatively few rich consumers produce the majority of emissions11. Economic growth and and our notion of what constitutes ‘progress’ seem to me, to warrant much of our attention when considering these issues.

I think that’s where I need to go next. Only by understanding our role within capitalism can we attempt to address the problems I’ve discussed. What better place to do this than a Higher Education institution, a place where the impacts of these issues are evident everywhere and answers to these problems can be collectively sought. I recently applied to the HEA for funding in an attempt to begin to put this into practice and will continue to think along these lines.

  1. Comment on Oil Drum []
  2. Project Discovery – Energy Market Scenarios, p.5 []
  3. Project Discovery – Energy Market Scenarios, p.16 []
  4. I’ve noted elsewhere that Ernst & Young have calculated a possible 400% increase in consumer energy bills by 2020. []
  5. Project Discovery – Options for delivering secure and sustainable energy supplies, p.5 []
  6. The Challenge of Infrastructure Investment in Britain, p.39 []
  7. Prosperity without growth? The transition to a sustainable economy, p. 8 []
  8. UK’s official CO2 figures an illusion – study. Source: Too Good to be True? The UK’s Climate Change Record [PDF] []
  9. Rebound launch: keynote presentation []
  10. Prosperity without growth? The transition to a sustainable economy, p. 102 []
  11. George Monbiot, The Population Myth []

4 thoughts on “Revisiting ‘Thinking the unthinkable’

  1. This is a great piece of writing Joss – really clear and raising the complexities of what we have to deal with. Consider using this as the backbone of your keynote.

    • Thanks, Richard. I wrote it with the keynote in mind in an attempt to distill a few things. I was pleased with where I ended up – it felt right – and it was fortuitous that I could draw on your recent post and the ideas you highlighted.

  2. Excellent post, Joss.

    We discussed this issue yesterday over a beer/diet coke and you asked how HE can continue in the absence of economic growth. I think I agree with your implication in this post: the answer has to be that, at least in its current form, it cannot continue.

    There have already been signs that the Government is seeking to return to a more concentrated funding system for HE (e.g. HEFCE’s recent tweaks to the RAE funding formula; discussion among research councils on concentrating PhD provision in research-intensive universities). These moves stand alongside Mandelson’s promotion and ringfencing of STEM subjects which are outwardly seen as critical in economic recovery and return to growth. But this could also be interpreted as a move to increase concentration of funding in disguise, since it’s typically older, research-intensive universities which have the largest capacity in these areas.

    But this is just one response to the problem of funding HE in a no-growth or negative growth economy. Maybe we can rethink our definition of HE so that it depends less on the trappings of a capitalist growth-based system – so that it’s more resilient, in your terms. One solution suggested in the Tim Jackson quote is reducing our level of “affluence”. I’m convinced that we’ll have to do this more generally in society sooner or later anyway (because we’ve exceeded the earth’s carrying capacity). But what would reducing affluence mean in reality for HE? Just less estate and less centralised ICT provision? At the end of the day these strike me as just efficiency savings, and they don’t address the scaling parts of the impact equation. Could it also mean ditching the competition-centric culture that gives rise to exercises such as the RAE and REF, where success lies in securing more funding to produce more high quality publications to generate more impact? What would a more egalitarian HE look like?

  3. Pingback: Triple Crunch « Expedient Means

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