Low-carbon futures: the solutions outside the energy system

Low-carbon futures: the solutions outside the energy system

Many of the most promising and exciting opportunities to cut energy use and reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are actually only indirectly related to energy.

In an earlier blog post, we talked about the habits, assumptions, policies and practices that drive demand for fuel and electricity, even though they’re rarely motivated by energy or energy pricing. The recent report by the Trottier Energy Futures Project (TEFP), Low-Carbon Energy Futures: A Review of National Scenarios, talks about the “what if” analysis in some national energy research that assesses how changes in energy services demand could affect GHG emissions.

This fascinating area of research was mostly absent in the eight national scenarios we reviewed. It’s easy to see why. For better or worse, most energy analysis and modelling is done by energy specialists, working within the bounds of the energy system. They factor in broader economic influences by setting assumptions for population and economic growth, often by projecting recent trends into the future.

But as we pointed out in our earlier post, fundamental drivers of energy-services demand like heat, mobility, goods movement and information processing exist outside the energy system, where decisions about housing mix, urban design, transportation patterns and industrial structure all affect energy use. Transformative technologies can also shift the underlying pattern of demand: the Internet, for example, has curtailed everything from personal shopping trips to face-to-face meetings and events.

All of these changes affect energy demand and GHG emissions, and their overall effect is to boost energy productivity. They take place in an economy that is about 20 times larger than the energy industry, and is shaped by trends and events that are not much influenced by fuel and electricity markets. Analysis of this additional layer of opportunity is essential to map the most promising pathways to a low-carbon energy future.

Of the eight scenarios summarized in the National Scenarios report, three paid some attention to these wider solutions.

  • The U.K. study used an economic model in which increasing energy prices triggered reductions in underlying demand for heat, mobility and other energy services. Those elasticities drove much of the U.K.’s decline in per capita energy consumption through 2050.
  • The Finnish study included four scenarios that drew attention to economic structure, urban form, personal values and lifestyles.
  • The U.S. scenario estimated that “smart growth” measures (pedestrian- and transit-friendly urban development) would reduce total automobile passenger miles by 20 per cent by 2050.

But this is an area where there is room for much more research, involving many more voices and disciplines than are usually brought to the table to discuss energy futures. The TEFP dialogue process, with its emphasis on extended stakeholder engagement, aims to draw a wider set of solutions to the development of low-carbon energy scenarios for Canada.

Click here to download a copy of Low-Carbon Energy Futures: A Review of National Scenarios.

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