When it comes to energy consumption, what really drives change?

A global lecture series sponsored by design consulting firm Arup, "Drivers of Change," examines what life would be like in 2050, and what that means for the current energy crisis.
Crosscut archive image.

The global stabilization wedge. (EPA)

A global lecture series sponsored by design consulting firm Arup, "Drivers of Change," examines what life would be like in 2050, and what that means for the current energy crisis.

Tuesday night was the Seattle stop on the Drivers of Change tour of 25 cities around the world. The program was developed by the Foresight, Innovation and Incubation department of Arup, and aims to draw attention to energy consumption and dependency, as well as what's ahead for us in the future. The lecture featured speakers Dr. Chris Luebkeman, director of Arup's Global Foresight and Innovation department, environmental scientist Jake Hacker, and director of Buildings in the Americas, Mahadev Raman.

The presentation began with a look backward. Throughout history, most of the major cities population-wise have been in Asia. Not until the past century has the global population become more widely distributed. Who knows what the next hundred years will look like? It's estimated that China alone will contain 6 billion people by the year 2050. That's the current population of the U.S., Canada, Mexico, Scandinavia, France, and the UK combined. Consequently, higher populations mean higher energy use in a world where energy has yet to be harnessed to its full potential.

Mahadev Raman carefully outlined Robert Socolow's theory of energy stability wedges. Imagine a graph — our history of energy consumption forms an upward-sloping line. If we continue to consume at the rate we are now, the line will continue to slope up. However, if we make changes and sacrifices in our society today, that line will even out or possibly begin to slope downward. The difference between these two possible outcomes is called a stability triangle. The triangle is divided into wedges, or gigatons of carbon emitted per year. Each wedge also represents one set of solutions that could be instigated to fix this problem; by breaking down one huge task into seven less daunting tasks, society is more likely to view the changes as plausible. Socolow also created corresponding solutions, each of which would eliminate one gigaton of carbon, or one wedge — solutions such as increasing mileage on 2 billion cars from 30 miles per gallon to 60 mpg, or completely stopping deforestation. If we begin work immediately, the problem could be as small as seven wedges. But if we continue to ignore the problem on a mass scale, the sacrifices needed could be as large as eighteen wedges. As one audience member put it, the more sacrifices we are willing to make today, the higher a value we are giving to the world of the next generation. In a hundred years, when we are all dead and forgotten, the results of the choices we make today will still be apparent.

Some people might just sit back and say, "Well, I don't have to worry about energy. There are still plenty of undiscovered oil reserves and thermodynamics and fusion power to run on, right?" Nope. Scientists estimate that we have already discovered well over ninety percent of the earth's oil. And at the consumption rate of about 8 million barrels of oil a day, any new reserves would last us two days, three tops. There's also the energy investment to consider — these days oil does not spring from the earth; it takes machinery (which run on oil) to get to it. Logically, it doesn't make sense to expend X amount of oil to get access to the same X amount, which is the case with underwater oil. Researchers are also trying to find a way to harness thermodynamics, or heat literally rising from the earth. However, the amount of energy this creates is minimal considering the amount needed to fuel our world. Also, scientists are working to make fusion power more accessible. But will throwing more money at scientists make them find a solution faster? Probably not.

But Drivers of Change was very hopeful about the future. As a company, Arup is working to design a car that gets 120 mpg. Implemented in 2 billion cars, that would eliminate fourteen gigatons of carbon a year! There is also a far greater potential for solar and wind power than we are using. For example, in 2002, the world burned 13.5 terawatts, or 13.5 trillion watts of energy. The remaining fossil fuels are estimated to equal about 15 terawatts, which, combined with an increase in consumption from 2002, is not a lot. Conversely, wind power can generate 72 terawatts, and the sun has the potential to generate 89 thousand terawatts. The lecture also mentioned briefly the benefits of biomimicry, or using the systems and functions of plants and animals as models to fix our human problems. The idea is that if an organism has survived the 3.8 billion-year history (sorry, creationists) of the earth, it is successful. The goal is to learn from, rather than take from, nature.

Arup's Drivers of Change has the right idea, aiming their lectures at the very people who have the potential to make a difference — design consultants, architects, local politicians, and construction companies. The speakers were knowledgeable, thought-provoking, and answered questions clearly. Their visuals put the vast amounts of energy both consumed and generated into perspective, and the message was one of overall hope for the future and a feeling of "When can we start changing the world?"


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