We are the first generation to feel the sting of climate change, and we are the last generation that can do something about it.
— Jay Inslee, Governor, Washington
There is such a thing as too late when it comes to climate change.
— Barack Obama, 44th President, United States
In a deeply profound way your work as designers and branding experts—your insights—could help save the world from the worst of climate change.
This is a creative brief for rebranding efficiency, a largely invisible collection of technologies that have helped stave off worst-case scenario climate change, buying us all a little bit of precious time.
Fuddy-duddy efficiency has had more than 30x the impact of renewables (solar and wind) in keeping fossil fuel use in check over the last few decades. If the goal is to keep fossil fuels “in the ground,” then the market has to be crashed so there is no need to drill, mine and burn. One of the best ways to do that is through efficiency.
Yet many creatives I have talked to see efficiency as the enemy of creativity: a kind of Dickensian minimalism devoid of color and heart. It conjures up images of assembly lines, arbitrary rules and authoritarianism. Part of the creative brief may be finding a better word.
At its core, energy efficiency is about good design, whether for products, processes, systems or services. It is about doing things better and smarter, not about belt-tightening or sacrifice. It is about unleashing abundance.
Below is some background and also a link to a pdf that includes a sample campaign — “the bottom line” — complete with ready-to-go-cut-n-paste copy. By the time you finish reading this, I hope you find new reason for optimism. Climate change is happening, but it can still be slowed down using technologies that we already have.
A proxy for just how bad things are is the amount of carbon in the atmosphere measured in parts-per-million (ppm). It has been nearly 30 years since we were last in the safe zone of 350 ppm. Right now we’re at 408 ppm. If not for efficiency, the number would probably be closer to 500 or even 600 ppm.
That is a future killer.
If you think global weather is extreme now, it is only a taste of what’s to come if we don’t get handle on things. Atmospheric carbon—like efficiency—is invisible, but the damage—everywhere—is all too visible, from melting polar ice caps and rising seas, to killer heatwaves, droughts, floods, hurricanes and nor’easters. A warmer planet also means more mosquitoes and ticks and the diseases they spread. A carbon-saturated atmosphere means carbon-saturated oceans, lakes and rivers, too, whose rising acidity is literally corroding the food chain.
Clean energy—solar, wind and, on the horizon, hydrogen—is, of course, really important. So, too, are better batteries for energy storage (see Elon Musk’s work in Australia). But it has been efficiency, which cuts demand, that has done the heavy lifting in terms of limiting the use of fossil fuels.
In techie terms, reduced “energy intensity,” a combination of mostly efficiency, but also compositional change (e.g, if you have fewer steel mills, then less energy is needed to make steel), has had more than 30 times the impact of renewables over the last few decades. Renewables and batteries are improving at an accelerating rate, with adoption following a kind of Moore’s Law. That’s great. But to fight climate change in any meaningful way means using everything we’ve got. Efficiency is one of our most powerful tools.
I bet you didn’t know that. Most people don’t know that—which is why you as designers and branding experts are so needed!
It should come as no surprise that supporters of the coal and oil industries aren’t big fans of efficiency. It cuts into their profits because it reduces demand. They would like to see programs such as EPA’s popular Energy Star cut. Over the last 25 years, Energy Star, which incentivizes manufacturers to produce better appliances, has saved American consumers an estimated third of a trillion dollars — as much as $30 billion in a single year.
Likewise, gains in car and truck efficiency have been dramatic. With the cost of batteries expected to halve again by the 2020s, electric vehicles (EVs) will soon be competitive with gas-guzzlers. Even today, a Tesla X SUV can go nearly eight times the distance on the energy equivalent of a gallon of gas compared to the average car circa 1973. That was the year of the Arab oil embargo that saw prices at the pump quickly spike by more than 50%. Tally that up for a 15 gallon fill up and the Tesla goes more than 1,000 miles further.
Change can happen fast. It took a little more than a decade for cars to replace horses as the dominant mode of transportation a century ago. Fossil fuels can revert to being fossils—left in the ground—just as fast.
Efficiency also plays a key role in growing a modern, competitive economy. By reducing demand, energy efficiency dramatically reduces utility bills. We don’t see these “negawatts” on our bills—we only see what we owe. But without efficiency, our bills would probably be on average as much as double what they are.
Year in, year out, these unseen savings have put more money—more capital—directly into the pockets of businesses, where it can pad a bottom line or be invested in growth. Savings have also boosted consumer spending power.
Rather than a supply-side “trickle down” diffusion of capital, this is a demand-side, highly-targeted infusion of capital. Not to put too fine a point on it, but it is also a more efficient way of recycling capital to grow the economy.
The communications disconnect about what efficiency means and its critical role in creating a clean, prosperous future could very well cost us that future. We are at a knife’s edge with climate change.
As creatives you are experts at shaping and packaging ideas so that they can easily be understood by a broad range of audiences. That is a key piece of the puzzle.
Scientists and technologists can—and have—come up with all kinds of solutions. Writers like me write about them at length. Your talent is for brevity, for finding ways that cut to the chase and speak to head and heart. You know how to make the invisible visible. (click here for pdf with sample campaign: “the bottom line”)
I want to be clear that this is not a competition that I am organizing, but rather an idea that I am putting out into the world with the hope that others sponsor competitions .
It would be absolutely thrilling if this challenge were embraced by design schools, design firms, professional organizations such as AIGA and the legions of designers who are part of the marvelous Creative Mornings community. (#efficiency, #brandingefficiency, #climate)
I cannot wait to see what you all come up with. It’s going to be brilliant!
- Rebranding Efficiency: Creative Brief and Sample Campaign (pdf)
- Less is More, More, More: The Cascading, Collective, Compounding, Sheer Utter Coolness of Efficiency | J. A. Ginsburg
- Integrative Design, Virtuous Circles, Tri-Sector Innovation and a Paradigm Whose Time is Now | J. A. Ginsburg
- 350.org: “Keep It In the Ground”
- Keeling Curve | Scripps Institution of Oceanography
- Rocky Mountain Institute
- Ellen MacArthur Foundation
- Yale Environment 360
- Environmental Health News
- Climate Science Special Report | US Global Change Program
- Index of UN Climate Change Reports
- Lessons of the Lamp Post Garden: How a Healthy Soil Microbiome Can Slow Climate Change, Fix Agriculture & Make Just About Everything Better | J.A. Ginsburg