Saving Energy and Natural Resources
Sustainability means being able to meet our present needs, without compromising either our own ability to meet future needs, or the ability of future generations. It therefore covers nothing less than the survival of both people and the planet. This is a very complex subject, but is generally broken down into the concepts of economic, environmental and social activity, or ‘profits, planet and people’.
This page covers one element of that: use of energy and other natural resources.
Sustainability goes far beyond simple ‘eco-friendliness’ or ‘environmental friendliness’, but use of natural resources is an important element. This page explains why this matters, and how you can reduce energy consumption either individually or as a business.
A number of factors have come together in the early twenty-first century that have brought sustainability to the forefront of political and societal attention.
Historical economic and social models were largely focused on present needs: people used what they needed at the time, with little concern for the future impact of their consumption.
Back in the Middle Ages, this was not a major problem, because nobody was able to use up large amounts of resources. However, following the Industrial Revolution, this changed. Large-scale use of fossil fuels, and industrial production methods, have both depleted the world’s finite resources, and also damaged the environment through pollution and over-use of natural resources. At the same time, advances in medicine have extended life expectancy, and the world’s population has expanded exponentially. This, in turn, has increased demand for resources.
Science suggests that these changes are now accelerating and, if unchecked, could rapidly lead to global disaster.
It has therefore become clear that if we do not make changes to how we live and work, on a global scale, future generations—and not necessarily that far into the future—will probably be unable to cope.
In other words, this model is not sustainable.
It allows us to meet our present needs—up to a point—but it damages our potential to meet our needs in the future. Change is necessary to ensure the long-term survival of the planet.
In particular, we need to reduce our use of natural resources to ensure that there is enough to go round.
Energy and Energy Consumption
One of the most important natural resources is energy.
Access to sustainable modern energy services contributes to poverty eradication, saves lives, improves health and helps provide basic human needs.
The U.N.’s report from the 2012 Rio+20 Earth Summit
The point, however, is that energy services must be sustainable. There are a number of ways in which we can generate electricity and other forms of energy to run our world, and some are more sustainable than others.
The Energy Hierarchy
The Energy Hierarchy was proposed by the Institution of Mechanical Engineers as a new approach to energy policy.
It ranks options as an inverted pyramid of priorities, with the most sustainable at the top, and the least sustainable at the bottom:
The five levels of the energy hierarchy are:
1. Energy Saving (Leaner)
Energy saving, at the top of the pyramid, is about reducing our use of energy. This may be, for example, by better insulation of buildings to prevent heat loss, not leaving gadgets on stand-by or even just switching off lights. Governments are also encouraging the use of smart meters to raise awareness about energy use as a way to encourage people to save energy.
This is the simplest, but most effective, way to reduce our use of resources. It is also accessible to most people, with a little bit of effort.
2. Energy Efficiency (Keener)
This is about making better use of our energy, through better design or changes in technology. For example, switching to more energy-efficient models, such as newer appliances, or LED lighting, can help to reduce energy use. This is a longer-term project than energy saving, but can be—and is—an important part of reducing energy consumption.
Be aware, however, that it is better to stop using your tumble drier altogether than to buy a newer, more energy-efficient model!
3. Using Sustainable/Renewable Energy Sources (Greener)
Renewable sources of energy are those that are not depleted by use, such as solar, tidal or wind power. Governments and energy generation companies have invested heavily in these in recent years. These sources do, however, have significant drawbacks, and particularly that the energy sources may not be available when demand is highest: for example, most people want to use lights at night when solar power is not available.
To a certain extent, biofuels are also included in renewable sources. However, these must be replaced, rather that automatically regenerating. They may also have an environmental cost in themselves: for example, if corn is used to make biodiesel, it cannot be eaten, and nor is the land available to grow food crops. Growing these crops may also demand use of water, another natural resource that is increasingly under pressure.
Increased use of biodiesel may therefore be good for the environment in terms of carbon emissions but contributes to food shortages around the world. It is a delicate balance.
4. Low-Impact or Low-Emission Energy Production (Cleaner)
It is possible to reduce the impact of producing energy from conventional sources. For example, the technology that allows carbon capture and storage can reduce the impact of using fossil fuels. The reduction of nuclear waste can also reduce the long-term impact of nuclear power generation.
Investment in these technologies tend to be made at governmental level, or by big corporations encouraged by government incentives such as tax breaks.
5. Conventional or High-impact Energy Production (Meaner)
This final option, at the bottom of the pyramid, describes the exploitation of non-renewable natural resources (oil, gas and coal) to provide cheap and reliable power. There is really no nice way to put this: this technology, which is pretty much the current default globally, is a problem. It is resource-intensive, and also polluting.
The best option here is ‘offsetting’: where you do something ‘green’ to compensate for your use of energy (see box).
Carbon offsetting is the practice of reducing emissions of carbon dioxide in one area, to compensate for emissions made elsewhere. This is done on an international scale by governments to comply with requirements in international treaties.
However, it can also be done by individuals. For example, someone who needs to travel somewhere by plane, or who does a lot of driving, might buy carbon offsets to compensate.
Carbon offset schemes include investment in wind turbines, or other renewable projects, or projects to increase energy efficiency or clean up pollution.
Offsets are probably better than nothing, but they have been criticised for allowing people to continue using fossil fuels with a clear conscience.
A Complex Issue
Tools like the energy hierarchy are useful in helping to think about how to reduce energy use. However, they may well over-simplify many of the issues.
As individuals, we all need to be aware that anything except directly cutting our energy use (energy saving) may well have other consequences.
Using an electric car instead of a petrol-driven one (energy efficiency), for example, will reduce your personal carbon emissions, but do you know how the electricity was produced to charge your battery? Sure, you might want to believe that your energy-generating company is using carbon capture technology (low-impact generation) or renewable sources, but you cannot guarantee that.
Using more efficient appliances is better than using older ones that use a lot more energy. But could you use your dishwasher or washing machine less often? That would definitely use much less energy, and would also save water.
You may also want to read our page on ethical consumption for more about these issues.
None of us can make enough change to save the world on our own. However, if each of us makes an effort to become more informed about our energy use, and also directly tries to use less energy, that will have an impact. It may not be practical for all of us to sail across the Atlantic to go on holiday—but perhaps we could consider a short-haul holiday instead of that long-haul option. This may involve making a few sacrifices, but surely this is a price worth paying for the sake of the future.