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Are We Wasting the Opportunity to Waste Less Energy?

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The renewable energy sector is booming. Coal, for the most part, is on its way out. The nations of the world (our own excluded, alas) are busy enacting and enforcing policies designed to meet—or even exceed—their respective commitments under the Paris Agreement.

So how can it be that global energy-related carbon emissions are rising? Shouldn’t they be falling?

The first-ever Global Energy and CO2 Status Report was just released by the International Energy Association (IEA), a Paris-based advisory body that works on behalf of 30 member nations. According to the report, greenhouse gas emissions rose to a historic high last year: 32.5 gigatons. To many observers, that figure, in isolation, is of less concern than the alarming fact that emissions increased for the first time in three years—suggesting the beginning of a new upward trajectory.

The IEA says the primary culprit is a marked uptick in global demand for oil and gas. Developing nations like China, India, and Indonesia are chewing through fossil fuels as they try to grow their economies. Nearly two-thirds of global emissions in 2017 came from Asian countries. Lower oil prices have also boosted U.S. and European sales of sport-utility vehicles and other gas-guzzling automobiles, contributing to the spike.

Those explanations for the rise in global emissions are troubling, but at least they make sense. What makes far less sense, though, is that last year, the world seems to have fallen short on energy efficiency, the collective term for measures being taken at both the macro and the micro levels to reduce energy use through streamlining, design, and technological innovation. These are all areas in which we have much more control, and yet, according to the IEA, one commonly used metric of our global commitment to efficiency “slowed down dramatically in 2017,” improving at a rate of just 1.7 percent—far lower than the average of 2.3 percent we’d managed to sustain over the previous three years.

Disturbingly, the slowdown seems to be the result of “an apparent weakening of efficiency policy coverage and stringency.” That’s really just another way of saying that we’re crafting fewer policies to cut energy waste than we used to, and that the policies we are crafting aren’t as strong or effective as their predecessors were.

There’s no good excuse for this. Efficiency—which we might define as maintaining or improving a level of performance while using less energy to do so—represents the single greatest energy resource on the planet, not to mention the cheapest. It’s number one on the IEA’s rundown of policies that will get us to the Paris climate goal. The net effect of introducing all that energy-saving technology in everything from office buildings to automobiles to dishwashers and other home appliances over the past 40 years has contributed more to our nation’s growing energy needs than oil, gas, and nuclear power combined. What’s more, it has created an entire global industry devoted to innovation that currently employs more than 2.2 million people in the United States alone. That’s 10 times the number of people employed in the oil and gas drilling industry, and 30 times more than in coal mining.

Given the massive increase in energy demand from developing countries, we can’t allow ourselves to slow down efforts to cut energy waste. Rather, the world needs to be doing all that it can at this moment to implement and strengthen policies that encourage innovation and help utilities, manufacturers, and consumers maximize energy savings. We know that the United States has the power to lead by example in this regard. Under President Obama, we made greater energy efficiency gains than we did under any other president in history. Yet the current administration seems dedicated to reversing this astounding progress.

President Trump’s war on energy efficiency began as soon as he took office, starting with his refusal to publish a suite of Obama-era efficiency standards that were stuck in administrative limbo during the transition. (In February—after more than a year of this administration’s delay tactics—a federal judge ruled that the U.S. Department of Energy had to publish the rules in the Federal Register, the last step in their formal implementation, although the DOE is continuing to fight it.) It continued through the 2018 budget proposed by the White House, which called for slashing $1.4 billion in funds—a 70 percent cut—from the DOE’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy. Trump’s 2019 budget proposes even more disastrous cuts for energy efficiency, with no new ideas for developing the nation’s clean energy future.

Most recently, the administration’s war on energy efficiency has taken the form of a broadside against tailpipe emissions standards established by President Obama. Set to take effect in 2022, the rules are designed to boost vehicle efficiency for cars and light trucks such that they average 50 miles per gallon by 2025. But U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt recently confirmed what many suspected: that his agency would soon seek to rewrite these rules in order to weaken them—and, likely, to protect the profits of the administration’s allies in the oil and gas industry. Pruitt’s stance has put him starkly at odds with the state of California, which has the toughest tailpipe emissions standards in the country—standards that have been adopted by 12 other states, representing over a third of the U.S. vehicle market. (As the battle unfolds, it will simultaneously test the administration’s purported respect for states’ rights and its commitment to a federalist governing philosophy.)

Amid these terrible (if predictable) developments, states continue to make rapid and meaningful improvements, racing one another toward new goals in energy efficiency and spurring even more innovation and job creation along the way. And that race, happily, is being mirrored internationally. But slowing down on the federal level at this critical moment isn’t an option that leads to economic growth. Instead, it leaves us with stagnation. Now’s the time to take some of that saved-up energy and turbocharge our way into the maximally efficient future.

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