The Jevons Paradox

The Paradox

We might like to think that as technology develops we will be able to address all sorts of environmental issues by making our things (machines of all types) more efficient. Cars will run on less or renewable fuel, electricity costs will come down as sustainable solutions are developed, batteries will run our transport systems etc.

There is however a paradox involved, known as the Jevons Paradox, developed in 1865 and since greatly debated and to some extent tested and seen (to some extent I stress).

In 1865, the energy of choice was coal. James Watt had devised a steam engine that was much more efficient that the previous Newcomen design. This new design led to production costs falling as less coal was used in the process, but what had not been foreseen was that coal use would dramatically increase rather than decrease.

The reasons are simple to see. As the materials (energy) become more efficient they become relatively cheaper. An article that required ten kilos of coal to produce now only required six, becoming cheaper to produce and so easier to sell.

The machines producing these goods became cheaper to run, so were used more (and more of them were built). The result was an acceleration in the use of coal, not a decrease.

Further Research into the Paradox

There are also lots of pieces of research that have looked into this paradox in more recent times. In 2005 a report came out (here, quite technical though) that included summaries of lots of this research.

A look at cars is quite instructive. It appears that as fuel efficiency improves, drivers chose to use their cars more. So there is a relationship between improved efficiency and extra miles. If (as some of this research suggests) US citizens travel 20 – 25% more in their cars because the costs are lower, but the car is only 15% more efficient, fuel use will actually go up.

This also effects a broader set of consumption measurements. The more miles we drive the more wear and tear we cause on our cars. The vehicles will have to be replaced quicker. This will also cause more wear to the roads, and on our tyres  and brakes (some studies suggest that 60% of new (efficient) vehicle pollution comes from tyres, brakes and other non-emission sources).

We have written a lot about energy use on the blog, and I have to agree with Christopher in his last post:

We have to use less power, but that might require looking at the problem from a few different view points, and looking into a few dusty corners that we might have overlooked.

Energy efficient production is not the answer without broader political and more widespread change.

The UK is going greener

Electricity usage has been falling in the UK since 2002. Meanwhile, the grid has been getting cleaner by the year.

Wind, solar and hydro made up 27.5% of the UKs energy mix in 2020.

Go back 10 years to 2010 and that figure was only 6%.

You can take a deeper dive into the data by exploring the UK Electric Insights – provided by Drax.

The Dumbest Experiment in Human History

We’re using less energy and burning fewer fossil fuels, which is definitely a good thing! Every kilowatt-hour (kWh) of clean, renewable energy generated is a step in the right direction and a step away from what Elon Musk coinedthe dumbest experiment in human history“.

Even today, we still burn a lot of fossil fuels and other carbon emitters. Given climate change is now more pressing than ever, the drive for efficiency has never been more important.

So the scene is set: every kWh of consumption we can avoid is positive for the planet.

Energy Labels

From March 2021, you’ll start to see changes to appliance energy efficiency rating labels in the UK – and also across Europe. The old label will be phased out, being replaced with a new simpler one, aiming to promote higher standards of efficiency.

Each appliance type has its own label with additional info. For example, the TV label includes screen size, and the energy consumption of HDR mode. The label for fridges has a decibel rating (so you can compare noise levels) as well as the storage capacity.

The most noticeable difference is in the efficiency ratings. These have been simplified to an A to G scale. Before the range was A+++ to G-, which added complexity – especially as not all the labels were displayed on the chart!

Old UK Energy Label
The old UK energy label
New UK Energy Label
The new UK energy label

The new A to G label also has significantly stricter criteria – as it should if we’re to achieve our climate targets!

With every year, technology develops and efficiency improves – appliances need less power to do the same thing. As such we need to hold appliances to a higher standard. It’s worth remembering, this isn’t only good for the planet, it’s also good for your pocket. Buying a more efficient device which uses less energy will also save you money on energy bills!

If you bought a fridge in 2019 with an A+++ rating, that’d now be rated a B or C in the 2021 label.

If everyone stopped buying G rated products, manufacturers would stop making them. If more people buy A rated product, manufactures will put more research and development into making their products even more efficient – maybe forcing another label change! 😂

Reduce, Reuse, Repair, Repurpose, Recycle, Replace

You can help by knowing and using your “Rs”!

  • Reduce usage where you can – turn off the TV instead of leaving it in standby mode
  • Reuse your existing fridge, TV or washing machine – if you don’t need a new one, don’t buy one!
  • Repair what you’ve got before looking for something new
  • Recycle or Repurpose the appliance you have so it can have a second life – upcycle where you can
  • Replace it with an energy efficient one – and only if you can’t do the other “Rs”

So next time you need a new appliance, check the “Rs” to see if you really do need a new one, and if you do, look out for the new energy efficiency label and use it to help you pick the most efficient one 🙂

Experiments in Culture: Opening up after COVID-19

A view from the COVID-19 Test Concert in Amsterdam, March 2021

A couple of weeks ago Christopher and myself traded comments on one of his posts about the UK’s COVID-19 vaccine rollout, and he touched upon the question of what the post pandemic world might look like.

Going Dutch

This led me to thinking about the Dutch government’s approach to preparing the country for opening up and new forms of lifestyle for the near future, that they say is based on decisions that are founded in scientific research. And they are conducting a series of experiments that I thought our readers might be interested in.  

In order to discover how COVID might spread if life went back to the good old days of conferences, concerts, football matches and festivals, the government is running a series of experimental events:

  • 20 February: Business conference with cabaret show (500 guests)
  • 21 February: Football match NEC-De Graafschap (1500 guests)
  • 28 February: Football match Almere City FC-Cambuur Leeuwarden (1500 guests)
  • 6   March: dance event in Ziggo Dome (1300 guests)
  • 7   March: concert in Ziggo Dome (1300 guests)
  • 13 March: dancefestival (outside) at Walibi Holland (1500 guests)
  • 14 March: popfestival (buiten) at Walibi Holland (1500 guests)

Tickets for the first football matches didn’t sell out, but the rest went like the proverbial hot-cakes. Guests have to have a COVID test before they are allowed in, submit to tests during the event (temperature etc) and have tests after the event. Positive tests result in no admittance.


Inside the venues the visitors are put into bubbles. The dance event (see the photo above) involved dividing the guests into 5 groups of 250 and one group of 50. Each had its own entrance and exit, and all the necessary facilities. Each bubble had its own rules, for example one group of 250 placed in the seated area had to remain seated, while another replica group was allowed to dance in their places. Other bubbles were on the dance floor. In one, guests were asked to keep 1.5 mtrs apart, in another each had their own dance space marked on the floor. Fluorescent Water was distributed (presumably so that guests could see if they had been sneezed on).

Guests were also asked to wear sensors so that their interactions with other guests could be monitored.

What did they investigate?

  • Behaviour (following the rules)
  • Triage, track and trace systems
  • Quick-test (15-minute result tests) as a strategy
  • Air quality
  • Movement dynamics
  • Personal rule effectiveness (1.5 mtr distance)
  • Surface hygiene
  • High risk groups

Those lucky enough to get a ticket heard Sunnery James & Ryan Marciano, Sam Feldt, Lucas & Steve and Lady Bee! 

The dance festival had to be cancelled due to high winds, but preparations are in full swing for the pop festival. There have only been a few words said about any results, but it appears that nobody became infected as a result of the first event, so maybe a model of this sort might be possible, everyone has a test before entering, then follows a protocol as yet to be defined.

As someone who had his honeymoon at Glastonbury Festival in the UK (and went to PinkPop last year), I very much hope and look forward to trying out the new approach, whatever that might be.