Is energy-efficiency the key to a sustainable world? Not on your life.


The idea that energy efficiency is inherently a good thing for the environment is deeply embedded within the sustainability movement. But a new NASA-funded study has its doubts.

If there’s a term that’s become sacrosanct in any discussion about the environment, quasi synonymous with sustainable living, it’s energy efficiency. Fuel-efficient cars and airplanes, energy-efficient homes and domestic appliances, and LED bulbs everywhere we’re told, is the solution to living in harmony with a planet that’s got finite resources and a lot of people and nature to divvy it up it with.

The idea is embedded deep within the psyche of today’s environmental writers and commentators. In the Guardian newspaper, environment columnist John Abraham recently wrote in the article “Global warming action: good or bad for the poor?” (February 28, 2014):

“In my mind, efficiency is the first and most significant step to solving our intertwined energy and climate problems.  By using our current energy more wisely, we reduce emissions and save money; a true no-brainer.  We need to advocate for efficiency improvements in all countries around the globe.  As an energy expert, I’ve seen enormous amounts of waste both in the United States and in Africa.  I am convinced efficiency improvements can move us a significant way toward our reduced pollution goals.”

The problem is, they’re wrong.  As is anyone who’s believed that energy efficiency leads to reduced energy and resource use. And they’ve been wrong for more than a couple hundred of years, when energy efficiency first blipped on our production radar.

That’s because there’s actually no proof that energy efficiency leads to using less energy. In fact, the shocking truth is of scandal-like proportions: energy efficiency actually and paradoxically makes us use up more of it.

I first learned about the Jevons Paradox in The Ecological Rift: Capitalism’s War on the Earth– a biting marxist critique of our modern-day economy and the environmental devastation that it entails, written by several environmental sociologists.

The truth about energy efficiency goes something like this:  In 1886, an economist by the name of William Jevons discovered that there was a positive relationship between efficiency and consumption.  As locomotives became more efficient at burning coal, they actually burned more of it.

Why? Well, as the book points out, the first locomotives were so energy-inefficient and  costly to run that they barely got used at all. But it was when efficiency increased, thanks to technological improvements, that the industry began to take off. Propelled by reduced input costs, trains became a vastly more attractive form of transport, helping to grow the rail industry and increasing overall coal use.

The idea is actually quite simple. Increasing technological efficiency makes things cheaper to produce and use. Efficiency also spurs technological development itself, making new ideas possible that would have been prohibitively expensive in the past. And then there’s the role of capitalism and our commodity markets. Reduced energy use in one sector simply gets swallowed up (probably at lower cost) by another, allowing even more things to be produced and consumed than in the past.

In other words, efficiencies don’t lead to some sort of energy inertia, where it just sits motionless despite the growing demand. The saved energy is actually what allows an economy to grow and expand, which in turn causes even greater carbon emissions and pollution. It is an unfathomably vicious cycle and saying that will be difficult to break is quite an understatement.

The paradox explains any number of similar efficiency-energy use relationships in modern times. The fact that increased car-efficiency has led to bigger (SUV’s anyone?) and a greater number of automobiles, and therefore greater fuel use.  That fuel efficiency in passenger jets has been followed by larger planes and more of them, leading to significant increases in the numbers of flights. Or that greater lightbulb efficiency was followed by huge increases in the number of bulbs we use in our homes and offices.  It explains why as western countries have become more efficient overall, energy consumption and carbon emissions have continued to rise (especially in China, where emissions have risen as a direct result of western companies offshoring there and consumption patterns in the west), with blips only occurring during economic crises.

In the future, more efficient homes might lead to energy-cost savings for home owners, but the savings might be spent elsewhere – on weekend trips, a new computer, or more clothes, which is where that saved energy gets swallowed up again. Even financial savings in the bank get re-invested in new energy-consuming businesses and technologies.

A new NASA-funded study on the impending collapse of the Earth’s ecological systems also challenges those who argue that technology will resolve environmental challenges by increasing efficiency:

“Technological change can raise the efficiency of resource use, but it also tends to raise both per capita resource consumption and the scale of resource extraction, so that, absent policy effects, the increases in consumption often compensate for the increased efficiency of resource use.”

We’d be naive to think that energy efficiency is going to be our saviour since all evidence points to the contrary: we are becoming more efficient, but per-capita energy use is climbing. What’s the solution? Perhaps looking at the big picture.

If total energy-consumption is growing despite technological efficiency, we need to control and reduce our consumption and energy demand, instead of trying to have our cake and eat it too: consume without paying the real environmental cost of it.

I know that many will vehemently dispute this idea, and I know that many environmental technocrats are holding out for more investment in green energy sources (wind, solar, geothermal, and so on) that will permit infinite economic growth and permit us to increase our energy consumption without causing ecological collapse. The reality is that while green energy must of course be expanded to become the primary source of energy, time is running out for that option to be feasible on its own.

Reducing our dependence on technology, which translates into owning, amassing and using less of it, not to mention reducing our overall consumption, is what’s going to lead us to a truly sustainable planet.


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