Prime Minister Harper’s talk at the recent UN climate conference echoed Bush’s focus on a technological miracle as the solution to the world’s climate change problems. Other leaders have promised the same thing when pledging to reduce emissions intensity; they are promising new technology that will increase efficiency but will do nothing to reduce the absolute levels of emissions.
While there is no doubt that any real solution to climate change will have a technological component, it is extremely unlikely that a purely technological fix will be found. The reason for this is simple. While future technology will make our energy consumption more efficient, this increased efficiency is usually offset by increased consumption.
An example of this can be seen in the airline industry, where each new airplane design has decreased the amount of fuel needed per passenger (assuming a full flight) to reach its destination. The decrease if fuel consumption has lowered costs for the airlines and competition has passed those savings on to the consumer. The result is more people than ever are flying, and there are no emissions reductions.
Another example can be found in the automotive industry. While car mileage has not improved (PDF) significantly in the past 20 years, car manufactures have been able to increase performance year after year. The car has become more efficient, providing more performance per litre of gas; of course this efficiency has not resulted in a reduction in emissions because consumers have preferred more performance out of the newer more efficient engines rather than better fuel economy.
A last example (though you could probably find hundreds more) has to do with urban sprawl. City planners have known for quite some time that while many residents of a city complain about traffic congestion, adding new lanes and building new roads that allow people to travel to their destination in less time, only encourages more sprawl and more driving. Thus any efficiency gained by reducing the amount of time people spend on the road, only increases their willingness to live further away from work and drive more. The end result is more cars on the roads driving larger distances, but no reduction in emissions.
Without a change in behaviour, technological fixes will only improve efficiency; they will not reduce the absolute levels of emissions, and will not solve the climate change problem. Emission intensity based targets are not the answer. We need to demand real leadership from our politicians; we should not settle for their lip service.
UPDATE: Dr. Mark Jaccard, from the School of Resource and Environmental Management at Simon Fraser University was recently on Quirks and Quarks and he seems to agree with me.