Energy sustainability vs. Energy efficiency

The general view is that energy efficiency is good for the environment. After all, the less energy a device consumes, the better an outcome that provides for the environment.

Therefore, if devices consume less than they would have because of technological advancement, it seems logical to pursue and encourage those advancements that provide efficiency.

However, as I see it, the problem with this position is that while energy efficiency might help individual devices perform better and use less energy, that’s not necessarily good for the environment. If the goal is to eventually create a sustainable future that protects our natural environment, then energy efficiency does nothing for this in real terms.

Instead, energy efficiency only makes power easier to use and access since it is cheaper and more available, thereby increasing energy consumption in real terms. As a result, I argue in this article that while energy efficiency might provide nominal gains in energy usage, the eventual goal should be energy sustainability and sufficiency. And this should not merely be a shift to sustainable energy sources either, but a move towards less energy use overall, and I explain why here.

Seref Dogan Erbek

Why energy efficiency might amplify energy use

Take the example of LED lighting vs. incandescent lightbulbs. A single incandescent lightbulb consumes roughly 60 kilowatt-hours (kWh) of electricity every 1,000 hours. Compared to this, an LED lightbulb uses 70% less energy, meaning a consumption rate of roughly 18 kWh per 1,000 hours.

Millions of devices, appliances, and other energy-consuming products operate on this same premise: comparing the device’s energy usage now versus what it could have been. Considering this, the world should consequently see a net reduction in energy use since millions and millions of everyday devices and industries now prioritize energy efficiency.

However, since energy efficiency became a big deal in the 2000s, the world has not seen a net reduction in usage rates. Instead, energy use has ballooned – global energy consumption has increased by 1% to 2% almost every year for the past half-century (per 2019 figures). The only exceptions are 1980 and 2009.

Putting this information in graphic terms, the World Atlas of Light Pollution reports that 83% of the world’s population (and 99% of Europe and the US) live under a night sky that is 10% brighter than normal. And estimations are that the world’s energy demand will only increase by as much as 37% by 2040, according to the International Energy Agency.

Why is unbridled energy use wrong?

The basic answer is that energy resources are not infinite. On the contrary, they are limited, particularly in the case of fossil fuels, and will eventually run out.

But I’m sure this is no news. A significant part of the green energy drive is founded on the acceptance that the development of renewable energy sources is necessary to prevent (or at least prolong) the depletion of fossil fuels.

However, rampant energy use is still undesirable, even with limitless amounts of renewable sources to call on. I have written in the past about how the exploitation of resources for sustainable energy can be detrimental to the environment, society, and economies of the countries where these resources are sourced.

The experience in countries like Venezuela and the Congo, which are significant producers of cobalt – a primary resource in lithium-ion batteries, is a testament to the dangers of an unbridled pursuit for greater efficiency.

Perhaps rather than look to create more efficient electric vehicles, we should promote bicycles and the use of public buses. Also, maybe buildings should incorporate more natural lighting and ventilation rather than mega installations of HVACS and temperature control systems.

UAE: The new rail and transport project

The UAE’s recently launched rail and transport project concretizes the country’s commitment to drastically reducing carbon emissions within its borders.

As scientists warn, global warming poses an existential threat to humanity, and the UAE is doing its part to avert this dire prophecy. As one of the world’s largest oil and gas exporters, the UAE is also amongst the world’s top carbon emitters.

However, the country has set itself a “very ambitious” goal to reach net-zero emissions by 2050, announced in October 2021, thereby becoming the first Gulf state to make a green public commitment of such magnitude. According to Aljazeera, this came on the heels of an earlier $165 billion clean energy investment pledge by Dubai ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum.

With the rail and transport project, the UAE is forging ahead on its climate goals, and I believe this might provide the push that helps other Gulf petrostates firm up on their green resolve.

Seref Dogan Erbek

The UAE Railways Program

The rail and transport project christened the “UAE Railways Program,” was announced in December 2021. The program provides an integrated system for the country’s railway sector, blending freight and passenger carriage that is planned to span all eleven UAE emirates.

Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, Sheik Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, announced the program at the Dubai EXPO 2020 as part of the “Projects of the 50”, a series of economic and industrial projects aimed to accelerate development in the UAE.

The program’s central theme is national integration and sustainability, as captured by the Crown Prince in his speech. “The National Railways Program reflects the true meaning of integration into our national economic system,” says Sheik Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, “… it comes to support a national vision to connect the country’s key centers of industry and production, open new trade routes and facilitate population movement….”

Likewise, Sheik Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum noted that “the project comes in line with the environmental policy of the UAE and it will reduce carbon emissions by 70-80%.”

I should note that, while the UAE Railways Program was only recently announced, it forms part of ongoing transport initiatives that the UAE launched earlier in 2016. The program includes three strategic projects:

  • The Freight Rail, which includes Etihad Rail Freight Services (completed in 2016);
  • The Rail Passenger Service, which is end-user focused and aims to connect eleven UAE emirates running at speeds of 200 km/h; and
  • The Integrated Transport Service, which includes an innovation center focused on developing and integrating intelligent transportation solutions

The program also includes developing and deploying software applications to support planning, bookings, and integrated logistics solutions.

Economic and environmental impact of the program

The rail and transport project is expected to contribute immensely to climate progress in the UAE. Current estimates suggest that the country could cut up to 80% of emissions within 50 years. However, it’s not clear how the rail and transport project will achieve such wholesale emissions reductions by itself or if the reductions touted are only expected within the transportation sector.

Nevertheless, I expect that eliminating millions of truck, vehicle, and train trips should make a dent in the country’s total emissions. For example, the UAE projects that roughly 36.5 million passengers should ply the railway by 2030. Similarly, the Etihad Rail service is reported to have already transported over 30 million tons of granulated Sulphur (saving approximately 2.8 million truck trips).

One point that citizens will praise is the internal focus of the investments underlying the program. For example, the railway program will gulp around AED50 billion, 70% of which is targeted at the local economy. Likewise, the program is projected to create approximately AED200 billion in economic opportunities and thousands of jobs.

World Bank: growth down, towards a two-speed recovery

The World Bank has warned in a recent report that, due to headwinds such as inflation and vaccine inequality, the world faces a two-speed recovery that could damage prior strides in global economic development.

Although there’s likely to be a general slowdown after the strong rebound in 2021, the results and any eventual recovery that follows are liable to create unequal outcomes.

The developed world could pull away from emerging economies as the former experience a sharper post-pandemic rebound compared to a slower recovery for developing countries.

Despite the strong demand that drove record levels of global trade in 2021, international growth now looks to be set for a contraction. In its Global Economic Prospects Report, the World Bank states that world growth will slow from the 5.5% recorded in 2021 to 4.1% this year and 3.2% in 2023.

Myriad factors will spur this slowdown: the exhaustion of pent-up demand, acceleration of new COVID variants, upsurge in inflation, intractable supply chain disruptions, and more. As I see it, this was always going to be the case since the shockwaves caused by the pandemic continue to reverberate in various sectors worldwide.

Seref Dogan Erbek

In the same vein, I believe the anticipated “hard landing” that will create a chasm between the growth rates of advanced and emerging economies was also predictable. International development institutions such as the World Bank, the African Development Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development have warned of this.

Speaking at the time on the 6% global growth projected in 2021, Kristalina Georgieva, IMF Managing Director, noted: “The composition of the 6% is changing, with advanced economies broadly accelerating growth, whereas most emerging markets and developing economies are falling further behind. This is a dangerous divergence.”

However, despite early warnings, the world looks to be on track for precisely this dangerous divergence. The World Bank said that, while advanced economies will likely see a growth decline from 5% in 2021 to 3.8% and 2.3% in 2022 and 2023, respectively, they will return to pre-pandemic levels by 2023. But growth declines elsewhere will be steeper.

Comparably, 2023 will see emerging and developing economies still 4% below pre-pandemic levels. Worse, fragile and conflict-affected economies will fall 7.5% below their pre-pandemic path by that time, and small island states will likely be even lower, at 8.5%.

The rich forge ahead, as the rest fall behind

The causes of this anticipated two-track recovery are obvious and have been here for a long time. Massive debt levels, income inequality, infrastructure deficits, and reliance on commodity exports (subject to notorious boom-bust cycles) already put developing and fragile economies on a path that would see them unable to respond robustly to the pandemic.

As a case in point, while advanced economies could push massive spending budgets to aid their economies and provide stimulus, emerging and vulnerable economies either could not afford a stimulus or had to withdraw them before recovery in response to inflationary pressures. Unsurprisingly, Financial Times, quoting the World Bank, noted a 5% rise in per capita income within advanced economies in 2021, compared to a 0.5% increase in low-income countries.

Likewise, vaccine inequality, exemplified by the developed world purchasing five billion more doses than it needs for its citizens (enough to vaccinate Africa twice), and the stuttering rate of global vaccination showcases the difference in outcomes.

In the aftermath of the pandemic, these emerging and vulnerable economies are now faced with the bill of nearly a year of lockdowns and painful health-motivated restrictions. They are in deeper debt (global debt is at its highest levels in 50 years), inflationary trends are contracting savings and investments, and they now have less money to fund capital projects and economic initiatives.

As a result, we’re now going into a critical period for world peace and stability. Prosperity increases stability and vice versa. With the harsh incoming times for the developing world, we could see the hard-fought gains in global development over several years wiped away in just a few, making political and economic instability more likely.

I think the lesson here is that global peace and prosperity are a collective effort. The world now has a difficult task to manage the incoming challenge to foster and preserve a collective global charge in the right direction post-COVID.