Tag Archives: environmental impact
How Efficiency Improvements May Be Undermining Sustainability
By Martin Holladay – greenbuildingadvisor.com
Let’s say you’ve sold your old, leaky house and moved into a new, well-insulated home with Energy Star appliances. With all of its efficiency improvements, your new home requires 30% less energy than your old home. That’s got to be good for the planet, right?
Well, maybe not — especially if you save so much on your energy bills that you decide to fly to Florida for your next vacation.
A new book, The Myth of Resource Efficiency, casts serious doubts on the idea that efficiency improvements will lead to lower levels of energy consumption. The book focuses on the “rebound effect” — the increase in energy use that often follows energy efficiency improvements.
The authors of The Myth of Resource Efficiency — John Polimeni, Kozo Mayumi, Mario Giampietro, and Blake Alcott — identify William Stanley Jevons as the first economist to describe the rebound effect. In his 1865 book, The Coal Question, Jevons explained the mechanism whereby energy efficiency improvements lead to increased energy consumption: “If the quantity of coal used in a blast-furnace, for instance, be diminished in comparison with the yield, the profits of the trade will increase, new capital will be attracted, the price of pig-iron will fall, but the demand for it increase; and eventually the greater number of furnaces will more than make up for the diminished consumption of each.”
“Let’s Use More!”
One hundred and forty-four years ago, Jevons wrote, “It is wholly a confusion of ideas to suppose that the economical use of fuel is equivalent to a diminished consumption. The very contrary is the truth.” Economists now refer to this principle as the Jevons Paradox.
The Jevons Paradox takes many forms:
* Because of improvements in refrigerator efficiency, consumers can afford more and larger refrigerators.
* Because of improvements in vehicle efficiency, car owners can afford to drive more miles per year.
* Because of improvements in airtightness, window performance, and insulation techniques, homeowners can afford to build larger houses.
* Savings resulting from energy-efficiency improvements — or even savings resulting from giving up meat in one’s diet — allow consumers to take more vacations, resulting in greater energy use.
As Joseph Tainter explains in the forward to The Myth of Resource Efficiency, “An action taken to conserve resources reduces the cost of daily life to such an extent that entirely different kinds of environmental damage become affordable.”
In 1865, Jevons correctly predicted that the development of more efficient ways to harness the power of coal would lead to an increase in coal burning. Worried that Britain’s supplies of easily mined coal would be exhausted, Jevons suggested that Britain prepare for coming fuel shortages by (in Tainter’s words) “using the coal-given prosperity for posterity and for a sort of soft landing at coal’s limits.”
Is Efficiency Part of the Solution or Part of the Problem?
The Jevons Paradox represents a serious challenge to the energy efficiency community. “The Jevons Paradox questions the pervasive assumption — common in colloquial discourse and even in many academic discussions — that sustainability emerges as a passive consequence of consuming less,” Tainter writes. “This assumption comes in two versions. The pessimistic version suggests that it is necessary for people voluntarily to reduce their resource consumption in order to become more sustainable. Examples might include taking shorter or colder showers, using public transportation, drinking tap water rather than bottled, or eating less meat. … The optimistic version…is that a future of technological innovations and the shift to a service-and-information economy will reduce our consumption of resources to such an extent that we will become sustainable without requiring people to sacrifice the things that they enjoy. … This is exactly the assumption that Jevons showed to be false.”
Communities that have a low environmental impact and live in harmony with nature are not particularly efficient. Our planet’s future is being threatened not by traditional rural communities with old-fashioned methods of livelihood, but rather by industrial economies where efficiencies are highest.
The authors of The Myth of Resource Efficiency note, “The idea that ‘an increase in energy efficiency always promotes sustainability’ is very simplistic.”
In Praise of Higher Taxes
If efficiency won’t save us, what will? One possible response to the Jevons Paradox is to enact higher energy taxes. According to Tainter, however, such taxes will never fly in the U.S.: “The Jevons Paradox cannot be circumvented through voluntary restraint or any other laissez-faire approach. Giampietro and Mayumi suggest that taxes could make up for any savings introduced by efficiency improvements, thereby avoiding the paradox. In the United States, at least, this approach is politically infeasible, but the general principle is sound.”
I agree with the authors of The Myth of Resource Efficiency that we need higher energy taxes, but I disagree with their dismissal of voluntary restraint. Higher taxes will help, but a solution to our global climate crisis will also require a movement towards voluntary simplicity, as advocated by Henry David Thoreau and Mohandas Gandhi.
À la recherche des loisirs perdus
A move toward voluntary simplicity would not only benefit the planet — it might also provide us with more leisure time. (An excellent short video by Peter Smith explores the link between the Jevons Paradox and the disappearance of leisure.) As anthropologists point out, every improvement in economic efficiency — including the transition from hunting and gathering to agriculture, and the transition from agriculture to factory work — has been accompanied by a decrease in leisure. In The Time Falling Bodies Take To Light, William Irwin Thompson noted, “With a labor of a mere fifteen hours a week, hunters and gatherers can provide for all their needs.”
The “disappearing leisure” problem was memorably described in an essay, The Original Affluent Society, by American anthropologist Marshall Sahlins. Sahlins wrote, “Hunter-gatherers consume less energy per capita per year than any other group of human beings. Yet when you come to examine it the original affluent society was none other than the hunter’s — in which all the people’s material wants were easily satisfied. To accept that hunters are affluent is therefore to recognize that the present human condition of man slaving to bridge the gap between his unlimited wants and his insufficient means is a tragedy of modern times.”
Needless to say, I’m not calling for a return to hunting and gathering. I’m calling instead for the voluntary adoption of a simpler lifestyle: one with less work, fewer possessions, and more leisure time. A graceful transition to such a lifestyle would be the greatest possible gift to our children and grandchildren.
Carl Sevile, GBA Advisor
Most people don’t know how to program their setback thermostats, a simple energy saving device that actually works. Are we just too lazy to make a difference?
A recent New York Times article about the US Department of Energy (DOE) underscores a major problem we have in reducing energy usage. An audit of DOE buildings determined that the agency could save over $11.5 million annually by properly using setback controls on evenings and weekends. Out of 55 buildings surveyed, 35 either did not have or did not properly use setback thermostats.
Based on my personal observation, wasted energy is common in commercial buildings, most often when air conditioning is set at frigid levels, requiring workers to wear jackets and even use electric heaters to stay comfortable. It seems to me that a modest amount of thoughtful building management could save enormous amounts of energy, if we only had the will to do it.
Homes are a problem, too
Residentially, we see much of the same wasteful behavior. Many homeowners do not know how to or simply don’t bother to program setback thermostats. On top of this, they leave lights and computers on when not in use, and, my personal favorite, ceiling fans activated when no one is in the room to be cooled by them.
Most people don’t realize that ceiling fans provide convective cooling – they make you feel cooler when air blows directly on the skin. If you aren’t sitting underneath it, it serves no purpose. Fan motors also generate heat, warming the room slightly when they’re running. It makes me crazy to see fans running on front porches all day long with no one anywhere near them.
We have become a lazy and wasteful society. We get our power from wall outlets, and regardless of what we pay for it, the supply is endless, so we neither worry about it nor make conserve it. I know people who keep their heat and air conditioning on with their windows and doors open!
What will it take to make us change?
I have written before about energy monitoring devices, both simple and complex, cheap and expensive, that provide usage feedback, and the fact that they can help change behavior. While useful, such products just scratch the surface of behavior modification. Not only do we need to teach people how to properly manage and maintain their homes for maximum performance, we need to change their behavior enough so that they actually do the things they need to do to conserve more.
Simple things, like opening and closing windows and doors to keep heat in or out, or even opening and closing blinds to control the sun’s heat, seem to be beyond the will of most homeowners. Most of us turn on heat in the winter and air conditioning in the summer without giving any thought to the cost and environmental impact of our actions.
I would really like to know what keeps us from taking simple actions that can have a big impact. Is it laziness, ignorance, or a combination? As industry professionals, we must take the time to educate our clients about how to manage their homes. But what will motivate people to change their behavior enough to make a real difference? I wish I knew.