By Roger Diamond

We’ve been arguing the relative merits of nuclear power and other energy sources for the last few weeks, but I want to change tack and look at energy usage and ultimately, reducing it. This post will not be a list of 100 green tips for your household, as much as those are very useful and we may well mention some later, but rather a broader look at flows of energy.

First, some inescapable facts. By living, you use energy. So, unless you go and kill yourself, you’d better acknowledge that you are part of the problem, but therefore also on the flip side, potentially part of the solution. A cute paradox! Second, energy use per capita is higher in more developed/technologically advanced societies or households. If you live in Khayelitsha but have heaters throughout your house, eat lots of meat, drink imported whisky and drive a big car to the city centre every day, you cannot count yourself amongst the energy poor.

Third, and related to the second, is that energy usage globally is increasing per capita, as our lives become more complex. Improvements in certain areas, such as reduced paper usage because of the internet, are more than offset in a negative way by the immense resource consumption of manufacturing and powering the internet. Similarly, improved shelf life of food is probably offset by the immediate response, which is increased mobility for food. This rebound effect is typical human behaviour, such as that of the dieter who has a zero calorie soft drink, quickly followed by a double-decker supersize-me cheeseburger … with fries!

But now to my key point. How much energy do you really use and where does it get used? This obviously varies tremendously with each person and household, but the bare facts are that most of your energy usage is indirect. In other words, the petrol you put in your car and the power that flows through your home is but a small fraction of your total energy use. Most of your energy is used by others when you pay them for goods or services.

Here are the big three: house, travel and food. Your house is an energy hog, partly through daily electricity and water consumption, but more so in cleaning and maintenance, and of course building. Cement truly takes a phenomenal amount of energy to produce, as do bricks, paint, tiles, glass, treated timber etc. Travel is an interesting one as it is immensely variable, from those who do regular overseas airplane trips and commute daily in large cars, to those who holiday locally and use public transport. And food is perhaps the most interesting and complex of all, primarily because food production has vast externalities. Soil, water and land are in many cases not valued at all and hence not priced into your food bill. This is why diet has seldom been big on the green agenda, because it seemed so … ah, natural. The reality is that a typical Westerner’s diet has an immense energy bill attached to it and not only if you eat Aussie beef that was mustered with a helicopter!

So if you want to reduce your energy consumption, there is no shortage of ways to go about it, but the key is not to look at your electricity bill, but rather at the goods you buy. Change your habits and you will send signals shuddering all the way through the market. The problem is knowing what to change, isn’t it? Let’s look at that next time.

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