OXFORD, England, Sept 11 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - At the Rocky Mountain Institute’s offices in Colorado, each chair comes equipped with its own temperature control system.
In hot weather, sweating staff can switch on small fans in the chair’s back and seat to stay cool. On cold days, heaters similar to those built into car seats keep workers warm.
The individual controls are a way of helping the institute keep its building’s planet-warming emissions near zero by not heating or cooling it too much, while making employees happy.
“If the room temperature is between 18 and 30 degrees Celsius (65-85F) you’ll still be comfortable to your individual requirements,” said Amory Lovins, co-founder of the sustainability institute and an evangelist for energy efficiency as the smartest way to beat global warming.
As the world seeks ways to hold the line on climate change, shifting away from fossil fuels and adopting renewable energy sources is crucial, scientists say.
That remains a challenging task, with about 80% of global energy use still coming from oil, gas and coal, said Cleo Verkuijl, a researcher at the Stockholm Environment Institute.
“We’re burning more fossil fuels than ever,” she said.
But making everything that uses energy – from buildings to cars and factories – much more efficient could bring huge emissions reductions, energy experts told a conference in the English city of Oxford this week on efforts to achieve “net zero” emissions by 2050.
Better yet, it is often a politically palatable way of achieving that goal, they said.
Even the U.S. Department of Energy, under climate sceptic President Donald Trump, notes on its website that “energy efficiency is one of the easiest and most cost-effective ways to combat climate change”.
It also can “clean the air we breathe, improve the competitiveness of our businesses and reduce energy costs for consumers”, it said.
Britain’s parliamentary committee on business, energy and industrial strategy in July similarly called energy efficiency improvements “by far the cheapest way of cutting our emissions” and “a key plank of any credible strategy to deliver net zero by 2050”.
In the United States, improvements in energy efficiency mean energy use has risen at only 43% of the rate the economy has grown since 1975, Lovins said.
But far more could be done to consume energy in a smarter way, he said – and win over more people to deep emissions cuts at the same time.
For instance, some builders of highly efficient houses in U.S. states from Montana to Illinois have offered to pay utility bills buyers incur over a low baseline, such as $200 a year, for the first few years.
That has helped win business not just from clients worried about the climate but others keen on a guarantee of saving on their power bills while staying comfortable, Lovins said.
Countries such as France, meanwhile, use “feebate” systems to encourage the purchase of more efficient passenger cars.
Inefficient vehicles are slapped with an additional tax on purchase, used to provide rebates for buyers of greener cars.
Often the biggest barrier to greater energy efficiency is business as usual, climate experts said.
Utility companies, for instance, sell units of energy - still largely fossil fuels in most countries - giving them few incentives to promote conservation that would cut their profit.
“Right now, the more efficient they are, the less money they make. That’s a big problem,” Lovins said.
But if energy providers could instead sell “comfort” - a promise to keep a home comfortable at a price per square metre - it would be in their interest to invest in clean energy and efficiency, he said.
Another part of the solution is rethinking design - not just making electric cars, but manufacturing them from much lighter but still strong carbon fibre, for example, to shrink the need for battery storage, he said.
With almost all efficiency improvements, "the business case works whether or not you care about climate change", he added. (Reporting by Laurie Goering @lauriegoering; editing by Megan Rowling. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, resilience, women's rights, trafficking and property rights. Visit news.trust.org/climate)