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Conservation, China and the U.S.   August 19, 2005

Yesterday's entry detailed two simple but profound conclusions about the global future: there isn't enough cheap oil left to power India and China to Western-style prosperity, and the obstacles to another more efficient and equitable model of growth and prosperity are largely cultural, not technological.

The problem isn't just rising energy use in China-- though it is rising faster than GDP, troubling evidence of gross inefficiencies in energy generation and use--it's the fundamental inefficiency of the entire trajectory of Chinese development, which is to solve power shortages not with conservation but by building more coal-fired plants.

The underlying problem is China's extremely inefficient use of its existing energy. To quote a U.S. Department of Energy report:"China consumes three times as much energy per dollar of gross domestic product (GDP) as the world average, and twice the average for all developing countries."

For a more technical look, here's a World Energy Council report which compares energy efficiencies of various nations.

While the Chinese central government has laid out ambitious plans for alternative energy development, the main thrust of the government is to use coal to replace oil, as described in this report from Nature.

In the meantime, gasoline shortages are gripping the industrial hub of southern China, Guangdong.

The way out of this spiral--generating more energy by whatever means possible, including burning climate-changing coal--is outlined in the September Scientific American in a special single-issue entitled "Crossroads for Planet Earth." (Unfortunately the issue is not free online, but you can always read it at your local library, if it hasn't yet been closed due to budget cuts in your local government.)

The article on solving the world's energy and climate woes, "More Profit with Less Carbon," is by Amory Lovins, co-founder of the Rocky MOuntain Institute. Employing basic ideas such as generous insulation, higher efficiency motors, lighter-weight materials and better urban planning (see my articles on New Urbanism in the San Francisco Chronicle), Lovins explains how conservation could actually wean the entire U.S. economy of oil (you know, that stuff we're enriching the Mideast oligarchies for in order to waste it on low-efficiency vehicles) by 2050.

Before you declare that an impossibility, read RMI's work on how vehicles can be made radically more efficient with existing technologies such as carbon fiber.

If you doubt that conservation can really make a big difference, then consider "today's trivia question" on the Scientific American website:

Q. What percentage of household electricity in the U.S. is lost to appliances that are turned off?

A. About 5 percent of household electricity in the U.S. is lost to energizing computers, television and other appliances that are turned off, as a result of poorly designed standby circuitry.

That means simply mandating higher efficiency standby circuitry in home and office electronics--which would probably cost about 50 cents per device--would equal building dozens more power plants. Which is the smarter move? Mandating simple efficiencies with modest costs, or building more power plants? It's a no-brainer, except to the glorious leaders of China, the U.S., et. al.

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copyright © 2005 Charles Hugh Smith. All rights reserved in all media.

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