Improving energy efficiency would be more effective in preventing climate change than developing energy-supply technologies, according to a study in Nature Climate Change
“The evidence strongly suggests that improving end-use energy efficiency is the most effective way to mitigate climate change,” said Charlie Wilson, the study’s author and a lecturer in the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research at the University of East Anglia.
Public sector spending of Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development countries on research and development to improve energy efficiency in “end uses,” among them cars, buildings, appliances and lighting, totaled $38 billion from 1974 to 2008.
“This is less than the $41 billion spent on nuclear fusion alone—a single, highly uncertain energy option that has not made any contribution to a low-carbon future,” said Arnulf Grubler, a co-author of the study and professor in the field of energy and technology at Yale.
Meanwhile subsidies for fossil fuels, estimated at $500 billion globally, dwarf innovation investments of $160 billion in non-fossil fuel energy.
The researchers considered three desirable outcomes of energy innovation: the potential for reducing greenhouse gas emissions; social, environmental and energy-security benefits; and the potential for technological improvements. They found that efficiency in energy end-use outperforms supply technologies, such as power plants, in all three areas.
“Efficiency gets short shrift in both public energy research and development and in private market investments,” said Grubler. “In contrast, improvements in technologies, such as more energy-efficient domestic appliances and transportation, are underrepresented given their potential for mitigating climate change.”
Wilson said the multitude of small-scale innovations that improve end-use energy efficiency often go unnoticed because they don’t have the glamour of solar panels and wind turbines, and don’t benefit from powerful market interests and political influence that support supply technologies, such as fossil fuels, nuclear, wind and solar power.
“Yet end-use efficiency innovations have more potential and provide higher social returns on investment,” said Wilson.
The study, “Marginalization of End-Use Technologies in Energy Innovation for Climate Protection,” is available at www.nature.com/nclimate/journal/v2/n11/full/nclimate1576.html