Why Energy Efficiency Isn't Reducing Consumption but How Carbon Rationing Could

> by Don Fitz
> Energy efficiency is not reducing the consumption of energy. This is
> true despite claims that it is the best way to cut down on use of
> coal, oil, gas, and nukes. Put these claims out of your mind for a
> couple of minutes and common sense will make it clear why efficiency
> doesn't deliver.
> If you want to reduce the use of anything (energy included), what's
> the first idea that hops into your mind? Most people say "raise
> prices." If something costs more, people use less. If the price of
> gasoline jumps to $5 per gallon, people drive less.
> The flip side is: If you want people to buy more of something, reduce
> the price. Stores advertise sales because they get customers buying.
> Energy efficiency is like putting energy on sale. If you insulate your
> home, get a fuel efficient car, or buy an appliance that runs on less
> electricity, then your energy costs go down. This makes it cheaper to
> use energy. Just as making energy more expensive means people will use
> less, making energy cheaper (or more efficient) leads to the
> expectation that people will use more.
> It is only because we are told over and over again that energy
> efficiency results in less energy use that we would believe something
> that violates economic common sense. If a home is more energy
> efficient, it is tempting to turn the heat up to 72-75 degrees (rather
> than down to 60-65 degrees). If cars have more stringent fuel
> efficiency standards, expect more motorists to buy SUV equivalents and
> drive them more miles. Fuel efficiency could be the death knell for
> mass transit - expect CO_2 to pour from cement companies trying to
> supply widened roads for an influx of fuel efficient cars.
> Products designed to be energy efficient are low cost energy on
> steroids. First, people use the product more because it is cheaper.
> Second, once people have spent money on a product, the best way to get
> a return on an investment is to use it as much as possible. No one
> buys something in order to NOT use it. Efficiency tends to result in
> energy use going up rather than down.
> This "rebound effect" was observed as long ago as 1865 when Stanley
> Jevons wrote /The Coal Question/. New industrial techniques meant that
> only one third as much coal was needed to produce a ton of iron. Far
> from reducing the amount of coal used, the new methods were followed
> by a 10-fold increase during 1860-1863 in Wales. [1]
> In 1980, Danile Khazoom and Len Brookes surveyed a range of
> technological improvements and confirmed that during the previous
> century increases in efficiency were followed by increased energy use.
> [2] Variously known as the "Jevons Paradox" and the "Khazoom- Brookes
> Postulate," these concepts are well known by writers on energy.
> Ted Trainer emphasizes that if people carefully avoid using their
> energy efficiency devices, they will use whatever money they save to
> buy something else, which then leads to energy use during the
> production and consumption of the other product. [3] Jeff Dardozzi
> extends that reasoning, pointing out that if, instead of buying more
> stuff, people put their energy-saved money in the bank, that simply
> results in saved funds being loaned to others who start businesses or
> make purchases, thus feeding into the energy increase cycle via an
> indirect route. [4]
> Pat Murphy has a particularly clear analysis of how the process works
> with US homes, which have steadily become more energy efficient over
> decades. Newer homes use fewer Btus per square foot, but the number of
> square feet per person in a 2007 home was about three times what it
> had been in 1950. "Thus improvements in building efficiency have not
> provided significant energy savings because as we add efficiency
> features, we make houses larger, fewer people reside in them, and they
> use more energy-consuming appliances than ever before." [5]
> Even though energy efficiency, by itself, does not result in lowered
> energy use, it does not have to be that way. If efficiency were not
> treated as a goal but only as a means to a larger goal, it could
> become a powerful tool for lowering energy use.
> During World War II, people in many countries willingly accepted a
> limitation on their consumption via rationing cards. Everyone received
> the same amount of essential commodities as part of the larger
> struggle to protect the world from fascism. A similar system of
> rationing energy use would change energy efficiency from being a cause
> of increased energy use to a way for everyone to stay within their
> quota.
> Every purchase, including homes, heating, cars, gasoline, appliances
> and electricity for using appliances, embodies a certain amount of
> greenhouse gases (GHG) that could be calculated as "CO_2 equivalent
> values." It would be no more difficult to record these for each person
> than it is to record credit card purchases. In a rationing system,
> people would receive feedback if they were using too much energy and
> needed to cut back to avoid their energy use being halted.
> George Monbiot describes a quota system that would begin by dividing
> the total amount of CO_2 equivalency available to everyone by the
> number of people to determine the quantity everyone would be allowed.
> Everyone would receive a carbon debit card which would record
> purchases of fuel and electricity. [6] Once people were used to such a
> system, the quota could be reduced by 2-4% per year until a
> sustainable level was reached.
> A quota system would not be a series of restrictions and prohibitions.
> It would be highly flexible: People would decide for themselves how to
> keep within their limits. No one would be forced to go without a car
> or buy any particular type of car.
> At the beginning of rationing, most people would probably live their
> lives about the same. As the quota dropped to 90% of original carbon
> levels, people would have to start making choices. Should we get rid
> of the spare refrigerator in the garage? Or maybe not cook with the
> oven all summer when the air conditioner is on? Or endure the pain of
> using a towel instead of a hair dryer? Or suffer the agony of not
> having all the lights on when not at home? The only option not
> available would be doing everything as before.
> At this stage, most low income people would not have to make any
> choices because they would already be using less carbon than the quota
> level. But the richer someone was, the more changes that person would
> have to make at the very beginning.
> As the quota dropped from 90% to 70%, then to 50% and even 10% of the
> original carbon equivalent levels, more and more options would be
> lopped off; but considerable life style alternatives would remain.
> With lower levels of energy use, it is very likely that people could
> still choose either a personal hybrid car (instead of relying on mass
> transportation, car-sharing and biking) or a home with a spare room
> for an office, or a clothes dryer or a vacation twice a year. If a
> person wanted more than one of these, it would probably be essential
> to have highly energy efficient devices in all other aspects of the
> person's life. Again, the only unavailable choice would be "I want all
> of that and more."
> To make this work, it would be critical to address needs of low income
> people. Just as those with little money are stuck with the oldest and
> most polluting cars, they have homes with the worst insulation and
> greatest need for heating. A serious approach to combating climate
> change requires a massive social commitment to providing energy
> efficient homes and transportation to those in greatest need.
> The most unsettling limitation would be on air travel. Since jets
> cause exorbitant quantities of GHGs, George Monbiot concludes that
> foregoing air travel would be the one true sacrifice needed for a
> climate-sane world. [7]
> But even this luxury may only need to be tamed rather than eliminated.
> Ted Trainer calculates that using his "Simpler Way"
> could lower electricity usage to "under 2% of the typical rich-world
> household consumption." [8] Since Monbiot estimates that carbon
> consumption must be reduced by 90% and Trainer figures that a 98%
> reduction is possible, a little arithmetic indicates that a person
> adopting the Simpler Way should be able to fly round trip New York-
> London once every nine years and still reduce carbon emissions to 10%
> of current levels.
> Of course, there are big barriers to rationing carbon emissions. The
> first is that too many well-known people are saying things like, "The
> world is in serious crisis but relatively frivolous actions will foot
> the bill." This is epitomized in Al Gore's "An Inconvenient Truth,"
> which is on target for describing the problem but then trivializes its
> magnitude by suggesting that different light bulbs and such will do
> the trick. Rational people conclude that if no serious response is
> needed then the problem can't be serious. Those who truly understand
> that climate change is comparable to the Nazi onslaught are ready to
> discuss the extent to which our society must mobilize to halt its
> collapse.
> Inequality is perhaps the reason for trivialization. As long as those
> with wealth and power live in mansions and fly personal jets, their
> calls for others to sacrifice so that they can squander will fall on
> burnt ears. In a carbon rationing system, those who have the most will
> have to give up the most and right now it looks like they are using
> their control of industry, government, and media to divert attention
> from the types of deep green changes that need to be made.
> The popular concept of energy efficiency, as an uncoordinated amalgam
> of individualistic life style choices, will only worsen the crises of
> energy exhaustion and global warming. With rationing, energy
> efficiency would have the opposite effect by becoming a universally
> valued technique of staying within quota restrictions.
> What stands in the way is not the unwillingness of the many to
> confront the crisis but the insistence of the few on holding onto
> their privileges.
> Don Fitz is editor of /Synthesis/Regeneration: A Magazine of Green
> Social Thought/, which is published for members of The Greens/Green
> Party USA. He can be reached by email at
> Notes
> 1. Monbiot, G. (2007). /Heat: How to stop the planet from burning. /
> Cambridge, MA: South End Press, p. 61.
> 2. Dardozzi, J. The specter of Jevons' Paradox, /Synthesis/
> Regeneration 47/, Fall, 2008, p. 15.
> 3. Trainer, T. (2007). /Renewable energy cannot sustain a consumer
> society/. Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Springer, p. 116.
> 4. Dardozzi, p. 16
> 5. Murphy, P. (2008). /Plan C: Community survival strategies for peak
> oil and climate change/. Gabriola Island, BC: New Society Publishers,
> p. 14.
> 6. Monbiot mentions several proposed quota systems. He believes that
> carbon quotas of everything besides fuel and electricity would be
> reflected in higher prices for higher carbon usage. He also advocates
> a huge decrease at the outset of the system rather than a gradual 2-4%
> decrease. pp. 43-58.
> 7. Monbiot, pp. 170-188.
> 8. Trainer figures that heating could be lowered even more than the 2%
> level for electricity, though both might be a little higher in urban
> than rural settings. Monbiot reports that a one-way London to New York
> trip is responsible for an entire year of carbon emissions quota for
> each passenger "once a 90% cut in emissions has been made." [p. 173]
> But the overall climate impact of flight is 2.7 times that of CO_2
> alone. This means that a London-New York round trip would be 5.4 times
> a person's yearly carbon quota. So, if that individual could reduce
> other carbon allotments to 2% of current levels, in nine years the
> person could save enough "carbon credits"
> for the round trip flight.