Modern sustainability practices encourage resource and energy efficiencies across sectors such as food production or biofuels, but this approach could actually lead to ongoing environmental decay, according to researchers at the University of Georgia.
Using new technology to improve efficiency may accelerate environmental decay by creating more products at cheaper prices. The materials and energy saved are not actually preserved but diverted to other uses.
“Sustainability requires humans to choose to do less with less,” said lead author John Schramski, in a statement. “We try to balance materials such as nitrogen or water, which are technically renewable, but the preponderance of energy is not,” he said. “Once energy is burned, it’s gone. We’ll never get biomass or fossil fuels back.”
Using the premise that energy is the “ability to cause change,” the authors note that energy consumption has increased significantly in the past 70 years, and it continues to grow. Essentially, an exponentially rising energy discharge creates exponentially rising environmental change.
“When typical sustainability science says a new process is designed with 20% less fuel, all that’s really doing is making those resources available for someone else,” Schramski said. In reality, reducing consumption of forest resources doesn’t mean that the forest will never be used again. Instead, the forest will be deferred for another use at a later date, he said.
In the paper, the authors highlighted food systems, meat and biofuels as examples of the “complex and sometimes counterintuitive” challenges that lie ahead for sustainability initiatives, according to the statement.
Today, around 15%-30% of all energy consumption is used for the global food system for machinery, fertilizers, pesticides, irrigation systems, harvesting, transportation, storage, marketing and preparation.
Biofuels calculations show a similar result. Double the plant energy is harvested for every downstream unit of ethanol and biodiesel energy, the authors wrote. Ironically, the authors point out that equal amounts of fossil fuels are used to distil liquid biofuels from plants, and liquid biofuels represent only about 2.6% of the petroleum used for global transportation.
A sustainable future without a substantial reduction in energy use isn’t possible, say the authors.
Image credit: Etienne Girardet via Unsplash