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 🙂

Carbon Conversations and Carbon Counting

In this post I am going to offers some personal thoughts on my experience in the Carbon Conversations initiative.

 

The Carbon Conversations initiative

The Carbon Conversations initiative has been running since 2006. It was founded by Rosemary Randall, a psychotherapist, and Andy Brown an engineer. They created and developed a psycho-social project that ‘addresses the practicalities of carbon reduction while taking account of the complex emotions and social pressures that make this difficult’.

The initiative has run courses in the UK, Australia, the Netherlands, Canada, Switzerland, France, Finland and Spain (and maybe others), and I recently participated in six meetings over several months in one of these courses in the Netherlands.

As course members we all had a book, a translation of the English version but with locally specific information.  A free download of the English version is available here, and it is well worth a look. The book opens with an overview of the current climate situation, the need for change and raises the question of what these propositions mean for the individual reader.

This question is central to the course, and how to deal with the situation as an individual permeates all of the content. The psychology element is easy to see, as the focus is not only on how carbon emissions can be lowered, but also the problems of discussing the subject with your family and how your own emission level makes you feel.

The book addresses these issues by looking at several fields within which an individual can make a difference in their carbon output. The house, travel, food and drink and consumption habits, before the final chapter addresses the problem of talking about the climate with friends and family.

Everyday Life

There is a lot of information on offer regarding the carbon content of various choices that we make every day related to lifestyle. Beyond thinking just about flying and driving, breakdowns are visible of how much carbon is produced in food production, whitegoods and just in maintaining a house, not to mention clothes production and technology use. Blogging is not carbon neutral. Data storage is anything but eco-friendly. Neither is mobile phone use, and this is without thinking about the production of the hardware.

The course involves a lot of game playing, guessing and ordering, which was fun to do. Placing transport possibilities into order of high to low emissions, which imported foods produce the least, and many others, all leads to discussion as well as learning.

From a personal perspective however I feel that the course aim is difficult to understand. During the course various small changes came to light that have some effect on the individual, and could lead to slightly less carbon emission on a personal level, and the final chapter aims to lead the participant into discussion with others over these possible choices, but we are speaking about (and to) the converted here. The change that I can make, as someone who thinks about environmental problems enough to pay for and attend a course is minimal. My actions are not going to change the world.

I ask myself too: If I engage with my friends and colleagues will that change the world?

Difficult Personal Choices

Maybe the course is better seen as a kind of self-help group. We all face the issue of having to travel for work, respect the needs of our children and know that this has an effect on the climate, and to discuss this is without doubt of value. Those who think about the damage they cause themselves to the environment have few outlets to discuss these feelings.

Refusing to buy a mobile phone or computer for your teenage children because of environmental concerns has an effect on their lives, how their friends see them as much as anything else. But buying one might have an effect on the buyer too!

I also question some of the data and rationale in the book. The idea proposed that changing white goods for low consumption versions is seen as an improvement policy, but what happens to the old ones? Where does the waste go? What about the techniques required for building the new machines, mining, steel recycling etc.

What example does this consumerism offer to your children? Surely it would be better to invest in a solar panel system and produce enough electricity to run older appliances. This appears to be the result of focussing on carbon while excluding other environment issues and moral perspectives.

But all of the above demonstrates that the course is valid and useful as a discussion forum, and inevitably, talking about climate change does bring behaviour change.