Unsaving the planet: Will our efficiencies lead to catastrophe?

By Clive Thompson

We put a lot of stock in energy efficiency. It is regarded as the quickest and easiest way to reduce carbon emissions. Al Gore even ended An Inconvenient Truth with a plea for everyone to install low-power lightbulbs and appliances.

But in 1865, British economist William Stanley Jevons offered a skeptical take on efficiency. In The Coal Question, he wrote that energy-efficiency technology has a backlash effect. By increasing efficiency we make energy cheaper, thus spurring people to use more of it. As Jevons pointed out, when steam engines became more efficient, the consumption of coal (for steam production) didn't decrease– it expanded, because steam engines became cheaper to run and thus attractive for more and more things.

Adherents call this the Jevons paradox, or rebound effect. And the idea is at the heart of David Owen's new book, The Conundrum, which argues that not only will efficiency fail to solve global warming– it'll actually make things worse. The good news is that Owen's analysis is likely off target. But it's worth hearing him out.
Owen makes a number of grim observations that ring true. Automobile engines have become much more efficient, but we've responded by demanding larger cars loaded with more electrical gewgaws. Air-conditioning has become more efficient, but we've made it a cultural norm that every room and vehicle nationwide must be cooled in summer.

Or consider lighting. As a source of illumination, light from modern bulbs costs just 0.03 percent of what candles did in 1800. But a recent study funded by the US Department of Energy found that the amount of global GDP spent on lighting has remained at about 0.72 percent over the past three centuries. The astonishing increase in lighting efficiency merely drove an explosion in the number of things we light up– like kids' sneakers. Efficient power usage has made it 'so that there's almost nothing you can do that doesn't require power,' as Owen tells me.

But if efficiency will just make things worse, how can we avert climate disaster? Owen says we need to start living smaller, quickly and dramatically– by traveling less and consuming less and taxing energy much more. It is not, he admits, a pleasant message.

Assuming he's correct. The Jevons paradox has long been controversial, with economists arguing that Jevons got it wrong. Rebound effects are real, they say, but much smaller than he believed.

That's because we modern folk spend very little on energy. Plus, if we save money through energy efficiency, we don't immediately spend those savings solely on more energy. We spend it on more food or movies or clothes, where energy accounts for only a small part of creation cost. As a result, economist James Barrett calculates, rebound probably decreases the total amount of energy saved by at most 30 percent–hardly the catastrophe predicted by Jevons and Owen.

There's also evidence that efficiency standards work. After California imposed them in 1974, per capita electricity consumption stopped growing, even as it rose throughout the rest of the United States. Yes, globally Americans chew through more power every year, but that's due to economic growth, argues Amory Lovins, an environmental scientist with the Rocky Mountain Institute.

Owen and other rebound Cassandras "have a critique of growth, which they then blame on energy efficiency," Lovins tells me. But perhaps we're buying two air conditioners simply because we're wealthier, not because air conditioners are more efficient.

I suspect both sides have a point, practically speaking. Efficiency doesn't seem as big a danger as Jevons feared. But Owen is probably correct that we're kidding ourselves if we think merely buying highly efficient stuff is going to avert global warming.

So sure, go buy those low-energy bulbs. Just don't turn them all on at once.

Clive Thompson is a contributing writer to the New York Times and Wired, the latter the magazine where this essay first appeared.

Read more on: energysaving energy


Humans, like all organisms are opportunistic, technological improvements will only serve to accelerate our demise.
The only real option we have is to abandon all technologies beyond what the early indians used.

"Humans, like all organisms are opportunistic, technological improvements will only serve to accelerate our demise.
The only real option we have is to abandon all technologies beyond what the early indians used."

Skin was quoted as saying as they tried to pry his hands away from his humus stained Commodore 64.

No, more like tried to pry my hands from my homemade longbow.

No sights, just a stick and a string standing over a dead whitetale.