New frontiers in energy consumption

Every religion has its sanctimonious hypocrites, since we’re all cut from the same crooked timber.  So this story isn’t new.  “Environmentalist doesn’t understand energy.”  But I like how the authors make the point about how new uses of energy arise.

From Boldly Going Where No Greens Have Gone Before by Max Luke and Jenna Mukuno:

Humans have always been creative at finding new ways to use energy. Oil lamps, large ships, catapults, blast furnaces, gunpowder, fireworks, hand cannons and the printing press were all in use long before the first coal mine was dug or the first oil well was struck. But harnessing coal, and then petroleum, vastly expanded the amount of energy available for human use. Coal, first used to pump water out of mines, quickly led to the development of the railway industry and found uses in electricity, steel, transportation fuels and chemicals. Petroleum, first used in kerosene lamps beginning in the mid 19th century, soon found uses in transportation, cooking, lubrication, asphalt and myriad chemical products.

It might be that global warming will one day motivate societies to ban things like space tourism, impose stricter regulations and higher taxes on energy consumption, or voluntarily reduce their energy consumption. But it’s notable that many of the same people who express the most concern about global warming—including Messrs. Branson and DiCaprio—are the ones who are opening up new frontiers in energy consumption.

Even without restrictions, global energy consumption may peak at some point in the future, as population growth slows, poor people around the world achieve higher living standards, and our energy technologies continue to become more efficient. But for decades to come, energy use will almost certainly continue to rise around the world. Given this reality, efforts to improve energy efficiency may modestly slow the growth of energy consumption but are unlikely to halt it, much less achieve the deep declines necessary to mitigate climate change.

That Mr. Branson has developed a spacecraft that blasts humans into space more efficiently than previous vehicles is a laudable technical accomplishment. But from an environmental perspective, that accomplishment is completely overshadowed by the reality that the mogul is pioneering a new industry that involves blasting tourists into space. Should he succeed, the relative efficiency of the endeavor is almost entirely beside the point. Mr. Branson will have invented a new way for wealthy elites like Mr. DiCaprio to consume vast quantities of energy.

Weekend trips to Mars for the masses are, of course, still the stuff of science fiction. So, too, is the fantasy that climate change might be averted through deep cuts in global energy consumption.

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