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.

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