Another path to energy efficiency

A leading American energy expert has spoken optimistically about improving energy efficiency through existing infrastructure rather than relying on future technologies.

Amory Lovins, co-founder and chief scientist at the sustainability-focused Rocky Mountain Institute in the United States, was in 2009 named by Time magazine as one of the world’s 100 most influential people. 

He presented the Achieving Net Zero International Conference at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom with evidence that the energy system is transitioning towards carbon-free energy, and energy savings are accelerating at the same speed as renewables. 

Up to the present day, he said, improvements in efficiency of the fossil fuel energy production system have saved 30 times the quantity of emitted carbon that the growing renewable energy system has.

Although renewables receive more attention in scientific literature and the media, said Lovins, energy efficiency is a “larger pool by far” in terms of potential emission reductions.

Co-hosted by the University of Oxford and Victoria University of Wellington, the September 9-11 conference brought together leading academics, policymakers, civil society actors and business leaders to discuss what net zero means and how it could be achieved.

The conference explored the social, political, ethical, ecological, governance and technical opportunities and challenges to achieve net zero emissions and the policy action required to do so in a way that is both timely and compatible with the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals. 

The three themes were “Where are we?”, “Where do we want to go?” and “How do we get there?”.

Myles Allen, Professor of Geosystem Science at the University of Oxford and lead author of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Special Report on 1.5C, delivered the key message that we are currently at 1.1 degrees of warming, with a warming rate of 0.2–0.25C per decade. This gives us between 15 and 20 years until we reach 1.5C and 30 to 40 years to be able to reach net zero carbon emissions. Allen stressed that every decade we delay in starting mitigation commits us to an additional 0.25C of warming if we mitigate at the same rate.

Dr Jo House, Reader in Environmental Science and Policy at the UK’s University of Bristol, said climate activists accusing climate science predictions of being too conservative made her job a lot harder. She posed the question of how climate scientists and climate activists can better work together.

New Zealand Climate Change Minister James Shaw gave a talk via Zoom about New Zealand’s commitment to net zero by 2050. This was followed by a Q&A session that asked many questions, including about how the UK can learn from New Zealand’s cohesive progress on climate change action. 

Shaw was praised by delegates for his humble attitude when speaking about New Zealand’s successes and his honesty about sectors in which New Zealand is falling behind in terms of emissions reductions.

Professor Dave Frame, Director of the New Zealand Climate Change Research Institute at Victoria University of Wellington, gave a presentation about how greenhouse gases (GHGs) with short atmospheric lifetimes, such as methane, should not be treated as equivalent to GHGs with a long atmospheric lifetime, such as CO2. It was ethically unfair, he said, for developing countries such as those that emit methane from rice production. 

Frame also made an important point that the introduction of a Zero Carbon Bill would stop New Zealand’s contribution to further warming by 2050, which means New Zealand would be consistent with 1.5C. 

Among presentations on technological solutions for carbon removal, University of Oxford Professor of Biodiversity Nathalie Seddon spoke about the importance of nature-based solutions to meet global emissions reduction goals. This included how to achieve long-term socio-ecological resilience and how to promote synergies between climate change mitigation and adaptation and biodiversity conservation. 

During a panel discussion on technologies to recapture the already emitted, Seddon spoke from the audience about the integral role of ecosystem restoration as a solution for achieving net zero within the context of a flourishing planet.

Dr Shilpi Srivastava from the UK’s Institute of Development Studies presented on the importance of societal transformation towards sustainability and equitable outcomes, to ensure no one is left behind.

The conference closed with a presentation by Jamie Clarke, Executive Director of the Europe-focused Climate Outreach, who highlighted the importance of climate change communication and societal and behavioural change. 

It was evident from the conference that there are technological solutions to most of the challenges we are facing—but change ultimately boils down to political, social and consumer choices.

Achieving Net Zero intends to leave a legacy that will encourage other countries to sign up to net zero by 2050. This includes turning the ambition of net zero into achieving net zero by launching a campaign.

A series of 12 briefing notes will be electronically available at from September 20.

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