The high price of oil won’t have passed you by if you’ve had to fuel your car or your home boiler recently, and the values of oil exporters’ currencies are seeing the effect as well. The difference is that they are making more money while we are all forking it out, both personally and for the country as a whole, in a deteriorating balance of payments. It made me wonder: what is required to change consumers’ choices on the use of energy? We know that sudden rises in gas prices depress visitor numbers to out-of-town shopping malls, but that is a temporary phenomenon and largely restricted to less well-off families’ short-term driving habits — hardly a game changer for energy consumption levels in the most energy-hungry society on the planet.
So it was with some interest that I read an article in the NY Times written by Amanda Little, author of “Power Trip: The Story of America’s Love Affair With Energy, where she explores the idea of creating means for consumers to measure the energy use in their everyday lives. The argument goes that virtually everything we consume is produced from or powered by fossil fuels and their byproducts all of which become more expensive as the price of oil rises. Ms. Little suggests that much as eating habits only changed when consumers could see printed on the product how much fat (and what kinds), how much salt, sugar and fiber the product contains, so energy consumption will not be curbed until consumers can readily see how much energy is required to make and bring that product to market. It’s not as nutty or as unworkable as it may sound at first. As the article points out, Tesco, the largest supermarket chain in the UK, labels 500 of its products with a measure of carbon content stating the amount of energy consumed in its manufacture and the greenhouse gasses emitted. Now, before any global warming naysayers click on to the next article in disgust, our coverage of this issue is not meant as a solution to climate change; our position is that a reduction in energy use would directly benefit the US in lower import costs, improvement in the balance of payments and improved energy security as the US reduced its reliance in unstable regimes for its oil supplies.
Ms. Little gets into her stride with a suggestion that a mobile phone app could be developed that allows consumers to scan a product’s bar code and tell how much energy it took to produce it. As with nutritional data on food packaging, only awareness allows consumers to make sensible choices. Would consumers pay 5 percent more for a product that consumed 50 percent less? Yes, in many cases they probably would, all other considerations being equal, and it would only take a small shift in buying patterns to make producers respond rapidly. Consider that after the 2007 ruling for food manufacturers to state on their labels the amount of trans fat and saturated fat in the product, 95 percent of supermarket foods were re-formulated with healthier fats. You don’t have to change the habits of everyone, only a sufficiently large minority to make it worth producers adjusting formulations (in the case of food).
The trend could have impacts far beyond food of course. Similar applications to the bar-code scanner could link with on-board computers in cars, buses and trains to measure the amount of energy used in daily tasks or commutes. The IRS could offer tax rebates for the more energy efficient. Smart home systems could identify those appliances consuming the most energy and suggest ways to save. Metals like aluminum and zinc have high-energy inputs unless produced from recycled sources; how would an awareness of energy use in metal products impact buyers’ decisions? The same dynamic that changed food producers’ formulations could impact a furniture maker’s choice of aluminum or steel for his frame if he felt his customers would be swayed by energy content.
Arguably, decisions about energy consumption are in most cases more a matter of moral obligation than the greater dynamic of personal health that drove nutritional choices. Nevertheless, the idea has some merit; as we said earlier, any reduction in energy consumption would be good for the US in any number of ways and should be welcomed in preference to government-imposed penalties such as carbon taxes.