Tuesday, November 29

The Jevons paradox: why energy efficiency is not the solution

In the XIX century, economist and philosopher William Stanley Jevons he predicted many of the changes that would change humanity in the 20th century. However, he is known for the paradox named after him.

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Jevons observed that coal consumption in England skyrocketed as improvements in steam engines took place. This is the Jevon’s paradox: when greater energy efficiency is achieved, consumption increases.

When Jevons first wrote about this paradox in his 1865 book “The Coal Question”, also noted that as coal became cheaper thanks to modern mining techniques, its consumption increased. The greater availability of coal made it possible to find new uses for it, such as the automation of factories.

It is easy to understand how advances in efficiency can cause this effect with an everyday example. Suppose a family has only one air conditioner because they cannot afford to put more units in the house due to high consumption.

If, for example, a new air conditioner comes on the market that costs and consumes three times less, it won’t be long before the same family installs three or more units, nullifying the effect of energy savings.

The studies have found numerous examples. When highway lanes are widened to avoid traffic jams: more people decide to use the car and the traffic jams return after a short time. The same with improvements in computers and mobile phones.

While batteries are more efficient and new electronics do more with less electricity, increased processing power and performance means today’s smartphones need four times more battery capacity than a Nokia 3310 from the year 2000 (the one with the snake game).

Efficiency is necessary, but not sufficient

This does not mean that we have to stop pursuing efficiency. The world is facing an unprecedented energy crisis. Climate change, declining resources and economic turmoil have highlighted the need for more efficient use of energy and reduction of waste.

The most important form of efficiency is smart power grids (smart grid) that reduce power losses, using sensors (Internet of things, IoT) to control the flow of electricity.

This intelligent management is essential to integrate renewable energy sources, such as solar and wind energy, which are intermittent, in the electricity supply.

The other big bet is the development of energy-efficient buildings, which consume less energy for heating and cooling, above all. Using systems such as heat pumps, consumption can be reduced by up to three quarters.

However, with climate change and ecological disaster looming, theorists warn that, because of the Jevons paradox, the only viable solution is to reduce consumption.

For example, it is not enough for the air conditioner to consume less (which would lead to more cooling use) but to build houses that hardly need energy, such as passive houses.

Living in the donut economy

British economist Kate Raworth, who focuses her academic work on displacing the idea of ​​perpetual economic growth, presented her model of donut economy.

In this model, energy consumption is subject to minimums that must guarantee the well-being of human beings, such as food, water, housing, education, health, work, justice, political participation and equality.

The outer circle puts limits on energy consumptionwhich correspond to the maximum ecological capacity of the planet: climate change, ocean acidification, loss of biodiversity, exploitation of aquifers, and different types of pollution.

According to the donut economy model, the efficiencies should allow us to live between those two circles, instead of going outside the outer circle and using the efficiencies to better exploit nature.

The city of Amsterdam decided in 2019 to adopt this policy as the principle of all its actions, from the regulation of companies to urban development.

What can we do as consumers to reduce energy consumption?

The truth is that, at an individual level, what we do has little influence, and what has the most influence is what people resist doing. For example, having one less child or living without a car is much more effective than putting in LED bulbs or using canvas shopping bags.

But you can’t despise the cumulative effect of buying fewer things, and instead recycle, reuse, repair or exchange. The most important actions are in the hands of governments and companies.

For example, abandon fossil fuels, stop encouraging economic growth and consumption, levy taxes that compensate for the environmental damage caused by the activities of companies, and penalize those who emit the most. As citizens, we can also vote for those who commit to that path.

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