|An Energy Descent Action Plan (EDAP) is a process for preparing a regional response to climate change and peak oil. It goes beyond issues of energy supply to look at across-the-board creative adaptations in the realms of health, education, economy and the entire range of infrastructure that supports our existence. Energy descent action planning is a process developed by the Rob Hopkins, founder of the Transition movement. It is a method for communities to collectively confront the challenges related to weaning our society off fossil fuels. Considering the serious threats created by peak oil and climate change, the EDAP process begs thorough examination. This paper will examine the basic assumptions behind the EDAP, its basic principles, its history and development, and its present use. Finally I will compare the EDEP to other plans for energy security and climate adaptation / mitigation.
The Energy Descent Action Plan is based on one key assumption: we must dramatically lower our energy use. This controversial idea is based on the following three basic considerations:
1) Climate change means that we need to use significantly less fossil fuels in order to lower carbon dioxide emissions. The climate will change by one or two degrees now due to greenhouse gasses already released in the atmosphere, but if we are serious about avoiding tipping points in the climate system - dramatically less fossil fuel use is an imperative.
2) Even if climate change were not a problem, a more fundamental problem in the short term is the fact that we are quickly approaching a peak in global fuel reserves. It is anticipated that peak oil will happen around 2012.1 The International Energy Agency released the 2008 World Energy Outlook which reported that between 2007 and 2008 its own figures for projected rate of decline in world energy supply had almost doubled from 3.7% a year (2007)2 to a 6.7% a year (2008).3 In 2008 several major companies including Arup, Yahoo and Virgin created the UK Industry Taskforce on Peak Oil and Energy Security (ITPOES) released a report which calls ‘on the UK government, and other companies operating in the UK market, to join us in an effort to appraise the risk from premature peak oil, and plan proactive and reactive strategies - local and national - for facing up to the problem.’4 After peak oil, fossil fuels will become significantly more expensive and energy shocks will occur as supplies are no longer able to cope with demand.
3) There is not yet any alternative energy source that can provide energy as cheaply and in such abundance as fossil fuels have in the past. ‘Net energy’ is also known as ‘energy return on energy invested’ and refers to amount of energy obtained in comparison to the energy required to get it.5 Despite advances in technology there is no quick fix, no other energy source primed to take the place of fossil fuels. Even controversial technologies such as nuclear power will not provide enough energy to maintain current growing demand.6
Once these key assumptions are accepted, we must then accept that life with dramatically lower energy consumption is inevitable. Accepting the three premises above challenges many of our basis assumptions. Whether or not we are prepared to confront these challenging ideas the impact of climate change and peak oil threatens to be severe.
Within the context of peak oil and climate change, the Energy Descent Action Plan becomes an obvious step towards preparing for the future. The EDAP examines a local situation in regards to a community’s dependence on fossil fuels and vulnerabilities in local infrastructure to energy shocks. The EDAP process explores the current situation, visualizes the ideal situation, and then attempts to map how we can move from one to the other. The ideal situation would be a smooth transition to a future where we have learned to live within the carrying capacity of ecological systems, i.e. learned to thrive in a low impact system. The transition movement suggests that a low energy future could actually provide a better quality of life than we have now; if we start a planning process soon enough and build resilience to change into local communities. The more wide spread the community support, the better chance we have of success, as the saying goes: 'if we fail to plan, we plan to fail'. In order to understand the Energy Descent Action Plan, we can deconstruct the name itself:
World energy use is presently at all time high and there is strong evidence to suggest that we will be unable to sustain high energy use as we are quickly approaching a peak in global energy reserves.
Energy descent was coined by ecologist Howard and Elizabeth Odum in The Prosperous Way Down (2001).7 It is the post-peak oil phase, when humankind goes from the ascending use of energy that has occurred since the industrial revolution to a descending use of energy.
Without action all the best intentions and all the strongest rhetoric remains meaningless. Starting the work of transition means breaking free of the illusion that we are all powerless within systems over which we have little control. While it might be true that individuals are relatively powerless, collectively we have the capacity to bring about change.
Without a plan we will more than likely end up somewhere we do not want to be. Today, we are at a critical junction in history. We can now make plans to reduce carbon emissions and engineer our way out of our dependence on fossil fuels - or we can be subject to the repercussions of not taking geo-physical realities into account.
Basic principles of EDAP
The basic characteristics of an Energy Descent Action Plan are the following:
• It works locally by looking at regional conditions.
• It engages a local community in a collaborative process.
• It empowers communities by involving everyone.
• It takes a systemic approach using system thinking.
• It works towards integrating human and natural systems.
The first Energy Descent Action Plan was written by a group of permaculture students under direction of Rob Hopkins in Kinsale Ireland in 2005. What is important about the plan is its holistic approach and the community ‘buy it’ it creates through its collaborative design process. Individual working groups within a local Transition initiative develop the EDAP plan. These groups are formed around various sectors: waste, food, transport, buildings, government, health, arts, education, etc. Groups are composed of individuals who often have expertise or knowledge of that sector. The Transition process facilitates cross-pollination of skills and knowledge for the common goal of energy descent. Visioning events are held by the entire Transition group and also by individual sector groups. The Energy Descent Action Plan itself is worked by each subgroup. An on-line wiki is used for collaboration towards writing the plan itself.
Other types of planning processes have attempted to attempt to deal with the lowering use of fossil fuel to address climate change. The most thorough and radical plan yet conceived is the Zero Carbon Britain report by the Center for Alternative Technology. This vision of Britain’s energy future outlines bold policy drivers to reduce carbon emissions to zero within 20 years.
Perhaps the first plan published was The Rocky Mountain Institute's Winning the Oil Endgame in 2004. The book is 'charts a roadmap for getting the United States completely, attractively, and profitably off oil'. Unfortunately this plan relies on biofuels which have multiple negative implications in terms of climate change and social inequity.
Two American cities, Oakland & Portland, have both published plans: ‘Oil Independence Oakland Action Plan’ and ‘Descending the Oil Peak’. Sweden released a landmark national action plan in June 2006 that articulates programs and policy measures that are meant to reduce oil consumption in Sweden by as much as 40-50% by 2020. The UK passed The Climate Change Act in 2008 but policies measures to implement the new law are vague and much government policy runs directly in contradiction to the new Act, i.e. the creation of new runways and coal-fired power stations are bound to increase carbon emissions and are dependent on the use of the abundant supply of fossil fuels.
The risks presented by the twin challenges of climate change and peak oil make planning for energy descent essential. While government agencies and universities struggle to find models of sustainable development to respond to perceived threats, independent researchers and community activists have started the process of creating strategies for practical action in response to grave social and environmental challenges. Once fringe opinion becomes acknowledged by the mainstream, the strategies created by pioneers to deal with impeding energy shocks will become important stepping stones towards global mitigation and adaptation to climate change and peak oil. Energy Descent Action Planning is unique in its integrated approach, community engagement, and its emphasis on action.
1 Industry Taskforce on Peak Oil and Energy Security (ITPOES). The Oil Crunch. 2008. (London: ITPOES), p13.
2 International Energy Agency, 2007, World Energy Outlook 2007, (Paris: IEA), p.84.
3 International Energy Agency, 2008. World Energy Outlook 2008, (Paris: IEA), p.43.
4 Industry Taskforce on Peak Oil and Energy Security (ITPOES). The Oil Crunch. 2008. (London: ITPOES), p.6
5 Hopkins, R. The Transition Handbook. 2008. (Totnes: Green Books), p.53
6 Trainer, T. Renewable Energy Cannot Sustain a Consumer Society. 2007 (Springer Verlag), p.9.
7 Odum, H&E. A Prosperous Way Down. 2001. (Boulder University of Colorado Press).
Jody Boehnert. April 2009. Feedback here