Whither Energy?

Why the Bush Proposals are Wrong

Part Three: Making a Long-Term Plan

Having considered the the problems with efforts to continue unabated fossil fuel use and the need to develop bridge supplies of energy to get us through the next 50 years, we are left with the usual question of what to do next. I believe that we need to do two things: keep the situation from getting any worse, and develop a vision for a sustainable energy future. I'll discuss these matters in turn.

We need immediately to reduce our energy consumption and to continue and intensify research into sustainable energy alternatives. (It's worth mentioning that Bush's budget includes a 29% reduction in funding for research into renewable energy.) Relatively simple approaches will buy us a lot of time.

The first need is to increase the price of energy. We should outline a clear path of increasing taxation, something that would increase the tax on fossil fuels far into the future. The tax increases should be relatively small at first, becoming large in later years. We need a consensus on this, so that everyone knows that the increases are coming and can prepare for them. This will encourage people to buy smaller and more fuel efficient cars, to locate closer to work, to end the practices of suburban sprawl development, and to initiate residential and industrial efficiency improvements. This will work, as shown by the response to sharp oil price increases in the 1970s. We simply must adopt strategies that will yield prompt and significant reductions in total energy consumption.

We need to discourage travel, especially by energy-intensive modes such as flying and driving alone. Taxes on these modes should gradually be raised to quite high levels, in part to compensate for the large externalized costs that these modes impose on society. This will provide clear incentives for the development of energy-efficient, high-speed rail networks, which should be able to operate profitably in an economic environment in which energy has become expensive and in which transport modes are taxed in proportion to their externalized costs.

The development of a sustainable energy policy is a complex and time-consuming task. We will need to project rates of demand out to about 50 years, based on strategies that will greatly reduce that per-capita energy demand in the developed world. At the same time we must make reasonable projections of the rates of sustainable energy production. We must ensure that the gap between demand and sustainable energy production can be filled by the use of the remaining fossil fuels, with the possible construction of additional nuclear power generation capacity starting in about 20 years. The deep future, more than 50 years out, is impossible to forecast with any accuracy, but we should continually plan 50 years ahead. Filling the gap will be made much easier if we conserve rather than squander our remaining oil and gas supplies, but the gap must eventually disappear, however frugal we become in our use of fossil fuels.

If we proceed on the assumption that we should strive to provide everyone on the planet with enough energy to live a good and healthy life, we are going to have to make dramatic reductions in energy consumption in the developed nations in order to provide modest increases in available energy to the poorer nations. To provide a specific target, I would suggest that the USA plan to reduce its consumption of fossil fuels by 50% within 20 years. Energy consumption might need only fall by 40% to reach this target, the balance being made up by increased supplies of renewable sources. Here again, the clear commitment to raising the end-user cost of fossil fuels will provide a large incentive to private development of sustainable energy sources. The increasing taxes on fossil fuels will prevent some of the distortions that have arisen from previous initiatives that offered tax incentives to such things as ethanol production, which was really only developed at all because of the tax incentives. The profit came from farmers using untaxed tractor fuel to grow corn that was fermented into tax-credited ethanol. There was no net energy gain, even though there was money to be made. This kind of boondoggle must be avoided at all costs and will require strenuous opposition to special-interest pleadings.

In all of this, the carfree city has a huge role to play. Carfree cities would consume far less transportation energy, because all transport would be either human-powered or rail-based, and therefore as energy-efficient as possible. Distances to be traveled would be reduced both by making cities much more compact than current US sprawl development and by relocating origins and destinations closer to each other, through the simple but effective application of mixed uses. Most Americans have become accustomed to having to drive to practically every activity. Most European cities, however, have workplaces, schools, stores, and housing located in the same neighborhood. As Jane Jacobs has documented, this leads to safe, lively neighborhoods.

Energy savings are not limited to a large reduction in transport energy consumption. Because carfree cities are based on relatively dense construction, most buildings will share two exterior walls with other buildings, thereby considerably reducing heat loss. A further savings arises because buildings are several stories tall, reducing the heat loss through the roof. The compact nature of the carfree city also makes it possible to grow significant quantities of fresh fruit and vegetables adjacent to the city, nearly eliminating transport energy requirements for these locally-grown perishable foods. While the carfree city is almost surely the most energy-efficient way to arrange a society while still retaining a high standard of living and good access to education, health care, and recreation, we need to quantify the energy requirements so that we can begin to devise a strategy for supplying these requirements from sustainable sources. This should be done as a part of the larger task of projecting a long-term energy supply and demand.

We cannot continue to follow our present course. The Bush energy plan is a recipe for disaster. If it worked at all, it would merely delay the energy crisis while at the same time making the crisis far more acute when it finally struck. Better thinking is essential, and soon.

J.H. Crawford
19 May 2001

Read Part One: Fossil Fuels Forever?
Read Part Two: Part Two: A Bridge to Sustainable Energy

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