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Could energy efficiency be the unexpected beneficiary of the decline of insects?

4 July 2019

Tim Rotheray of the Association for Decentralised Energy reflects on what businesses can learn from Isabella Tree's brilliant new book, Wilding.

The loss of biodiversity in the UK and globally was recently highlighted by the UN Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem services. The report tells a truly shocking tale of catastrophic declines in organisms, with a staggering 1 million species at risk of extinction. 

Biodiversity is the intricate web of relationships which maintain the most fundamental process that keep the planet habitable. The report identifies habitat loss as the biggest driver, with climate change and pollution coming 3rd and 4th. The UK is a prime example of this land use change. In her wonderful book, Wilding, Isabella Tree explores how the UK has, more than other European countries, eroded and fragmented habitats. In a 60-year period this has seen some of the sharpest declines in birds, mammals and insects that were once a common feature. The Cuckoo, Corncrake, Turtle Dove were all common and are now all too infrequently heard calls into an increasingly still spring sky.

Climate change is the salt in the wound of biodiversity loss. It makes a desperate situation all the worse by weakening all the remaining relationships that make up the natural world. Of environmental issues in energy, it is climate change that gets the lion’s share of the attention. But, of course, climate change is simply part of the ecological issue – maintaining a planet that is liveable for people (ultimately nature and life will survive so I am going to assume our efforts are entirely selfish for our species).

A focus on climate change alone is not enough. Clean energy is of little use in a sterile world that cannot support life. If we are going to create a really green economy then the complex world of ecology and biodiversity needs to come knocking at energy’s door. The carbon footprint perhaps needs to be replaced by the ecological footprint.

My experience of energy efficiency in the policy debate is of a set of solutions of which everyone approves but is never really acted on. For, example most roundtables on energy take the following format: The discussion starts and almost immediately focusses on electricity, usually power generation. At some point, someone will say we must do more on efficiency. Subsequent contributors will all then open with an assent on the need for more efficiency before moving to a substantive point on, say, how to increase solar power or interconnectors or whatever it may be. Action on efficiency is talked about a bit like I talk about sugary snacks in relation to my teeth. ‘Yes I know I really should cut down on sugar and I will but, for the time, being I’ve got this amazing new electric toothbrush.’

In Government, energy efficiency has only ever once been sought to be made centrally important, when Energy Minister Greg Barker set up the Energy Efficiency Deployment Office. But with no significant funding or policy it withered on the vine.

Energy efficiency is difficult, rather like heat, because of the bespoke and local scale of action. Ways to cut energy use in a bakery, a council office and a 1930s semi are all very different. Traditional central government approaches with policies applied to broad segments of the economy such as domestic or small businesses is not a great bed fellow for very site-specific needs. So, despite offering some of the cheapest decarbonisation options and direct tangible benefits to the energy customer (in reduced bills), efficiency policy remains a piecemeal and little considered area of energy policy. The policy landscape currently says, don’t worry, we will meet our carbon reduction with low carbon power, lots and lots of it. Just to demonstrate this, the spend on low carbon heat and power over £6 bn and compared to efficiency at £1.2bn (including ECO, industrial efficiency programmes and assistance to upgrade council buildings).

But could the growing awareness of biodiversity issues outside of climate change shift the balance?

While low carbon heat and power generation are wonderful developments, they too have environmental impacts. The production and operation of wind farms, solar panels, heat pumps, batteries and electric vehicles and all have environmental impacts. These can, and are, being be reduced but you cannot completely eliminate the impacts. The mining of metal ores, copper for power lines, refrigerants for heat pumps, the chemicals for solar panels. The extraction and refining of these products all have an impact. Of course this argument can be abused to say we should stop driving down emssions – of course we cannot, indeed we must accelerate deployment. The combined impacts are, of course, far less than their fossil counterparts. They are just not zero.

Low carbon energy is vital to ensuring we can develop a clean economy - but the wider environment demands that we only use as much as we need. A huge build out of low carbon heat and power is key but it must only be the minimum. The only way to minimise that need is to drive down demand. This means great strides in building efficiency as well as considerations such as prioritising e-bikes over electric cars (because they take far fewer resources to build and run) and supporting moves to a lower impact diet. It means driving flexibility in power demand through smart systems to reduce the power networks we build and upgrade to the minimum possible. It means driving industrial efficiency to ensure that low carbon gas is used as sparingly as possible.

Businesses champion unrelenting focus on cutting out wasteful costs and driving up efficiency. Such an attitude is absent in much of the energy policy debate. Aside from a few excellent stalwarts, most of the focus is elsewhere. We need to move away from throwing a patronising smile in the direction of efficiency before we look elsewhere for emissions cuts, and towards a revitalised ecology. Efficiency should become the heart of the policy debate – in practice, not just in principle. It should be more loudly heard from the green groups, from industry and from those tackling poverty. It is perhaps the one area of policy where there is near no dissent about its value.

In Wilding, Isabella Tree charts the return of wildlife to a Sussex farm. In a wonderfully heart-warming read, the book demonstrates how repairing the planet’s life support and carbon sequestration systems is rapidly achievable. It is a story that brings hope to those worn down by the ecological risks facing the planet. But it does something else. It highlights the interconnected nature of, well, nature. In a world of policy silos, where efficiency has fallen to the bottom of the list, it is perhaps the hope of halting the decline of the turtle dove and the cuckoo that can help energy policy professionals to review our priorities.

Tim Rotheray is the Director of the Association for Decentralised Energy (ADE).

This article originally appeared as a blog on the Business Green website on 12th June 2019

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