03/31/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Dear Mr. Gates: We Need More than Insulation and Innovation to Reach CO2 Emissions Goals

Bill Gates recently wrote on this site that "we need innovation, not insulation" to meet the goal of reducing CO2 emissions by 80% by 2050. We absolutely applaud Mr. Gates' support of this issue and the awareness that he brings to it, but the basic premise of his post obscures the reality of what's necessary to achieve realistic change. No matter what "innovation" materializes in the next 40 years, the bottom line is that greater efficiency and reduced consumption of energy are and will remain imperative to this effort.

Consider that world energy demand is expected to expand by 45% between now and 2030 - an average rate of increase of 1.6% per year (IEA, World Energy Outlook, November 2008). As global markets continue to build out infrastructure and a massive consumer class emerges in countries like India and China, we will see unprecedented demand for energy and an incredible amount of stress placed on aging, inefficient energy systems.

Add to this challenge our own gratuitous consumption habits and one can imagine how demand continues to outstrip the supply of clean, sustainable energy. In Sustainable Energy - Without the Hot Air, David McKay establishes average power consumption by country based on GDP. He posits that the European level of 125 kWh per day per person is a reasonable baseline for adopted efficiency levels and aspired standards of living. The problem is, the US currently operates at twice that rate of power consumption. Innovation alone cannot stabilize power consumption at an acceptable level to contribute to the overall supply and consumption balance; efficiency is again imperative.

Technological progress is undoubtedly necessary to achieve some emissions reductions, but efficiency gains and deployment of existing low‐carbon energy will account for the lion's share of savings under any climate-policy scenario. The International Energy Agency estimates that under a 450 ppm policy scenario, as much as 54% of emissions reductions by 2030 would result from energy efficiency measures as opposed to 23% for renewables and biofuels.

Mr. Gates also suggests that innovation and efficiency are mutually exclusive, characterizing the latter as "trying to insulate houses and telling people to turn off lights." That doesn't begin to scratch the surface of what's possible right now through greater energy efficiency, nor does it acknowledge the role that future innovation in energy efficiency will play in reducing carbon emissions.

Simply put, finding new ways to use less energy is vital under any future scenario. Equating energy efficiency with passive measures such as "insulation" and "turning off lights" drastically oversimplifies both the scope and complexity of the challenge at hand. We agree with Mr. Gates that we must not be distracted from what counts on this issue; we must stop chasing the windmills of tomorrow at the expense of implementing measures today that will put us on a realistic path to 2050.

Originally posted here.