Dear EarthTalk: With all the talk of the need for safe, renewable energy sources, isn’t the elephant in the room really that we should use far less energy than we do? Wouldn’t more rules about conservation (like not leaving commercial building lights on all night) make the challenges easier?
— Jennifer B., New York, NY
In short, yes: Scaling back our energy consumption significantly, whether voluntarily or as a result of laws and regulations, would go a long way toward achieving our pollution reduction and air and water quality goals. But Americans—and to a lesser extent those in many other developed nations—have never been very good at using less of anything, let alone the energy that makes everything in our whiz-bang modern world possible. That said, conservation is going to play an increasingly important role in all of our lives as we struggle to reduce our collective carbon footprints in a quickly warming world.
President Obama has repeatedly highlighted the need for greater conservation efforts when it comes to shoring up our existing and future energy reserves and reducing our dependence on foreign sources of oil. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 set aside upwards of $3 billion to bolster efforts across the country to weatherize existing buildings in order to conserve energy.
Grants to local communities for such projects, along with calls for voluntary reductions in energy consumption, are part of the plan. The White House is also betting on technology by subsidizing various initiatives aimed at reducing energy use and making our existing power network more efficient overall. Research has shown that investments in energy efficiency that promote conservation are cheaper and provide quicker returns than building new, cleaner power plants. A recent study released by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory predicts annual spending on energy efficiency and conservation to quadruple to as much as $12 billion a year by 2020.
As for what you can do to promote conservation, lead by example—and you’ll see your energy bills go down, too. Turn lights, computers and TVs off when you are done using them. If you’re remodeling or building a new home, occupancy sensors that turn lights on and off as people enter or leave rooms is a good investment, as is making use of natural light in more overt ways to obviate the need for artificial lighting in daylight hours. Also, purchasing appliances rated for good energy efficiency under the federal government’s Energy Star program will save energy. Likewise, driving a hybrid or electric vehicle, or foregoing a car altogether in favor of public transit, biking or walking, is a great way to conserve energy.
One way that awareness about the importance of energy conservation is being promoted around the world is through “Earth Hour,” which began in 2007 when two million individuals and 2,000 businesses in Sydney, Australia turned their lights off for one hour to make a statement about the need to fight climate change. Within a year, the concept had spread to more than 50 million participants in 35 countries. In 2011 Earth Hour drew participants in 135 countries; organizers expect the 2012 event (March 31 at 8:30 p.m., wherever you live) to be even bigger. Similar but unique “Lights Out” movements in San Francisco and other American cities will align with Earth Hour as well.