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The Curse of Energy Efficiency

The more ‘efficient’ our technology, the more resources we consume in a downward spiral of catastrophe.

Andrew Nikiforuk 26 Feb

Andrew Nikiforuk is an award-winning journalist who has been writing about the energy industry for two decades and is a contributing editor to The Tyee. Find his previous stories here.

History shows that every technical application from its beginnings presents certain unforeseeable secondary effects which are more disastrous than the lack of the technique would have been.— Jacques Ellul

Whenever politicians or environmentalists champion “energy efficiency” as the solution to our multiplying climate woes, don’t buy it.

The sell, however, can be seductive if not persuasive. The International Energy Agency for example, reckons that the magic of energy efficiency can achieve 49 per cent of the GHG emission reductions needed by 2030 to avoid catastrophic changes in global temperature.

As a consequence, national governments around the globe now champion “energy efficiency” as a sort of sacred cow. Federal Natural Resources Minister Jim Carr earnestly writes: “Energy efficiency is not something that just affects climate change on the margins — it can strike at its very heart.”

In one recent report the minister even gushed that energy efficiency performs as wondrously as a fairy tale: “It is also something that can improve the health of Canadians, strengthen our economy, create jobs and enhance the security of our energy supply.”

The U.S. non-partisan Alliance to Save Energy boasts that energy efficiency can change the world without any sacrifice on the part of energy consumers because “energy efficiency enables us to do more while using less energy.”

The only problem with these charming claims is that they are not true. Energy efficiency is a technological illusion that secures and sustains what is arguably a one-way freeway to resource depletion and atmospheric chaos. Contrary to Carr’s fairy tale notions, energy efficiency actually encourages the use of more energy and more resources. As such it merely sustains the dangerous status quo, albeit one illuminated by lots of energy-efficient digital signage.

Even Canadian government reports unwittingly acknowledge the starkness of the problem while calling for more efficiency. A 2013 study on energy trends, for example, lamented that “Canada was producing economic values more efficiently” but each household was using “a greater number of energy‐consuming goods and services per capita than in 1990.”

The report’s distressed authors added that more energy was being consumed “despite the fact that many electronic goods have become increasingly energy efficient since 1990.”

Europe is caught in the same paradox. Kris De Decker, the founder of Low-Tech Magazine, recently noted that fridges and freezers have become 75 per cent more energy efficient in Europe along with other gadgets. Yet energy use in 2015 was only slightly below that in 2000 (1,627 Mtoe compared to 1.730 Mtoe, or million tonnes of oil equivalents).

Energy efficiency, the celebrated cornerstone of the Paris Climate Agreement, probably explains why countries around the world are failing to reach their modest climate targets because efficiencies provoke more and unexpected energy spending.

The whole damnable story probably goes back to the 14th or 15 centuries. That’s when the word efficiency first popped up in Latin as Europeans began to deploy more machines to do more work.

To a medieval tradesman efficiency meant the “power to accomplish something” with a plough or water wheel. By the 18th century the word had achieved new glory as the measurement of useful mechanical work compared to the energy expended.

Today efficiency peppers every political, social and economic discourse. Political efficiencies get us to vote for wealthy liars who tweet uncontrollably while economic efficiencies engineer us to buy things we don’t need. Efficiency energizes our technological way of thinking, too: if only we used data more efficiently, why, we could solve all problems and defy every boundary. We worship efficiency and damn the inefficient.

In the 1950s Jacques Ellul, the radical Christian social critic, noted that techniques or technology now dominate modern life, the way capital once defined the industrial revolution.

The amoral force of technology, which Ellul correctly regarded as autonomous and self-augmenting, had only one guiding principle: achieving efficiency or the “one best way” in all things. “Technical progress today,” he wrote in 1954, “is no longer conditioned by anything other than its own calculus of efficiency.”

But it was Stanley Jevons, a brilliant 29-year-old coal economist, who first spotted the dark side of efficiency and its abusive marriage of economy and technology.

As steam engines became more efficient and cheap, Jevons noted that coal consumption radically escalated. He observed that efficiencies encouraged industry to apply the technology to more and more economic activities from weaving textiles to threshing wheat.

Even though these newer steam engines burned less coal, the proliferation of steam engines throughout the coal-fired British Empire erased any energy savings. More steam engines just begat more coal digging.

Jevons concluded that: “It is wholly a confusion of ideas to suppose that the economical use of fuel is equivalent to a diminished consumption. The very contrary is the truth.”

The idea that using fuels and resources more efficiently leads to greater environmental ruin became known as Jevons Paradox. Oil-fired and electrical driven technologies have honoured the paradox with panache.

Modern economists don’t talk much about Jevons Paradox, but they do admit that the problem exists and refer it to “rebound.” Just when you think you’ve actually solved a problem, shit rebounds on you, they calculate with their math formulas. When energy efficiency wipes out 100 per cent of the energy savings, economists call the rebound a total “backfire.”

Although most economists describe rebound as a modest problem, they admit that energy efficiencies can wipe out between 20 and 50 per cent of energy savings. But they consider the phenomenon a mild irritant not worthy of much attention.

Richard York, an environmental sociologist at the University of Oregon, disagrees with that assessment and considers the curse of energy efficiency a crippling development for society. How we consume and produce things is not independent of our technologies, he notes.

He often explains the eco-efficiency paradox with a brief thought experiment. Imagine two worlds. On the efficient planet cars can get 50 miles to a gallon. But on the inefficient planet cars gobble 50 gallons of fuel to move one mile. On which planet would people consume the most energy, he asks.

Earth has answered that question. A culture seduced by cheap fuels and energy efficiency will decorate its landscapes with roads, freeways, parking lots, malls and suburbia. On a planet with inefficient cars, people would continue walking. “Energy efficiency has rippling effects,” explains York.

Jevons Paradox now bedevils almost every aspect of modern technological life. The paradox energizes everything from home heating to lighting. It is even making a mockery of renewable energy.

Let’s begin with aviation as just one salient example. The average fuel efficiency of new aircraft has improved about 1.5 per cent a year between 1960 and 2008 while passenger traffic grew by nearly nine per cent. More efficient planes translated into cheaper fares as industry spent its energy savings on increasing range and speed. As a consequence, flying is responsible for 4.9 per cent of man-made climate change and chugs about five-million barrels of oil a day. The International Energy Agency expects jet fuel demand to rise by more than 50 per cent to above nine million barrels per day (Mbd) by 2040.

Jevons would recognize the pattern. As per-seat fuel efficiency of jet airliners improved, a combination of cheaper fares, increasing incomes, and a growing population raised the number of airborne humans from millions in the 1960s to the current four billion a year. In the airline industry energy efficiency just licenses growth and more efficient techniques to move people like cattle through the atmosphere. Thanks to efficiency “an airline ticket is one of the most environmentally damaging goods money can buy.”

LED lights also highlight the economic labyrinth of Jevons Paradox. These marvels use 70 to 80 per cent less electricity than the incandescent light bulbs that illuminated my youth. In fact LEDs have proved so efficient and portable, that they colonized more than our working and living spaces. You can now find them in bar code readers, clothing, mood lighting systems, atmospheric detectors, optical computer mice and digital signage that often reminds us of the importance of energy efficiency.

Now if consumers used the technology of LED to actually use less light and energy, there would be energy savings. But that’s not how technology works with other technologies. Given the numerous applications of LED and how many more spaces can now be colonized by engineered light, researchers at Rutgers University recently concluded that the transition from incandescent to LED lights won’t result in any lasting savings: “there is a massive potential for growth in the consumption of light if new lighting technologies are developed with higher luminous efficacies and lower cost of light.” In other words LED have unleashed “new and unforeseen ways of consuming light.”

History makes a reliable guide on this subject. Several technicians at the Sandia National Laboratories considered the energy and economic implications of LED lighting based on how humans used candles, whale oil, gas lamps and incandescent bulbs over 300 years. In papers written in 2010 and again in 2012, they concluded that more efficient lighting resulted in more light consumption and therefore higher overall energy spending by society. As the scientists put it, “energy use for lighting has experienced 100 per cent rebound on five continents and five technologies.” The second paper added an interesting caveat on the growth of artificial light in a technological society: “Such gains create economic benefits despite the nominal absence of climate benefits.”

Energy efficiency can also work like the house that Jack built. Writing in The New Yorker, David Owen recently explained how efficiencies in cooling technologies encouraged more air conditioning and refrigeration everywhere which, in turn, changed all aspects of food production. Cooled food travelled further, and became more readily available. With the cooling revolution, the volume of food waste increased by 50 per cent since 1974. Throwing out that cooled and wasted food amounts to taking 300 million barrels of oil a year and putting a match to it.

The efficiency monster can also be seen at work with the computer and other digital gadgets. Remember how tech gurus promised the “paperless office” and portrayed the computer as a lovely, green forest-saving device back in the 1980s?

But the gurus forgot that the computer actually made it easier to save and bank documents. That efficiency, in turn, meant that anyone could print anything, anywhere if they had access to a printer.

As a result of this convenience the production of paper rose inexorably. Although it takes about three times less energy to make a ton of paper than it did in 1965, technological society is finding more ways to consume paper. Each day we photocopy one billion documents while the sheer number of U.S. paper documents (currently stacked at four trillion) grows by 880 billion a year. That’s a 22 per cent growth rate.

The same people who promised us a paperless world are now making similar claims about renewable forms of energy. Wind, solar and geothermal, they argue, will retire fossil fuels, stabilize the climate and green the economy. We’ll just knock fossil fuels off the map by dotting landscapes with wind farms and solar panels.

But thanks to the eco-efficiency paradox something different is happening. Yes, rich nations have invested lots in renewable energy but those gains aren’t really retiring fossil fuels or even lowering carbon emissions. In a novel 2012 study, Richard York at Oregon University looked at 132 countries to see if renewables had actually retired fossil fuels between 1960 and 2009. His results shocked a lot of people. He found that “each unit of electricity generated by non-fossil-fuel sources displaced less than one-tenth of a unit of fossil-fuel-generated electricity.” There was no proportional displacement of fossil fuels. In fact it took more than 11 kWh of non-fossil-fuel electricity to kill 1 kWh of fossil-fuel-generated electricity. York concluded that “suppressing the use of fossil fuel will require changes other than simply technical ones such as expanding non-fossil-fuel energy production.”

Germany is a pretty good example of the paradox at work. The Germans have done much good work at ratcheting up renewables, but the new supply of green power has not been used to replace coal but to replace energy produced by mothballed nuclear reactors. Germany is getting greener but it is not going to meet any of its climate change goals either. In another study published last year, York concluded that “the production of electricity from renewable sources is prone to suppressing the production of nuclear power instead of fossil fuel use in affluent nations.”

Part of the problem with energy efficiency, says British sociologist Elizabeth Shove, is its narrow technical vision. Consider, says Shove, the state of home heating in the U.K. The government labels heating contraptions on their efficiency and there is no argument that boilers have become more efficient. But at the same time the average internal temperature in the home has increased four degrees. Unlike 19th century homes where only the living room and kitchen might be heated, the modern and efficient home demands that every room be 18 degrees whether it is used or not. Central heating has led to more heating overall just as efficient light bulbs have been deployed to light up more human jungles.

What bothers Shove is this: Under existing efficiency policies certain things can’t be questioned or asked. What if modern boilers were used to heat just one room? What if governments taxed large homes and their use of energy? What if efficient heaters were used to keep temperatures at 16 degrees and people wore sweaters? “Why is it that some technologies (insulation, heating systems) figure so prominently in evaluations of efficiency while others, including clothing, chairs, carpets, slippers and curtains, do not?”

Shove argues that “the pursuit of energy efficiency is problematic not because it does not work, or because the benefits are absorbed elsewhere, as the rebound argument suggests, but because it does work — via the necessary concept of equivalence of service — to sustain, perhaps escalate but never undermine... increasingly energy-intensive ways of life.”

In many ways the problem with energy efficiency is really the problem with convenience. In a recent New York Times essay, U.S. author Timothy Wu noted that convenience serves itself. He provides an interesting example and it is worth noting in full:

“In her 1963 classic, The Feminine Mystique, Betty Friedan looked at what household technologies had done for women and concluded that they had just created more demands. ‘Even with all the new labour-saving appliances,’ she wrote, ‘the modern American housewife probably spends more time on housework than her grandmother.’ When things become easier, we can seek to fill our time with more ‘easy’ tasks. At some point, life’s defining struggle becomes the tyranny of tiny chores and petty decisions.”

What the evidence has to say about energy efficiency is stark. Jevons was right about the paradox. If you make something more efficient and that efficiency translates into a cheaper service, the technology will colonize the economy the way zebra mussels invaded the Great Lakes. Improving efficiency will not reduce consumption and therefore won’t reduce CO2 emissions. The only way to reduce total energy consumption levels, say in the aviation industry or any other sector, is to limit the number of planes, travellers and airports. Higher energy prices and higher taxes will do that. But that means a shrinking economy and a radical rethink about the dominant role of technology in our decision-making.

As long as we define environmental, political and economic problems as essentially technical in nature, then we will proscribe energy efficiency as the solution. But if we were to admit that our problems were spiritual and political in nature and bedeviled by population and affluence, then we would endorse reductions in energy consumption and the inequalities that feed such appetites.

Politicians fear such change. No politician alive at the moment has proposed changing the ruinous and efficiently convenient way we live. No one is saying we could be happier consuming much less energy and owning fewer energy slaves — even though that’s what the evidence clearly suggests. No political party claims that sacrifice and courage will get us to a leaner tomorrow. No political party has advocated that the rich drive less, fly less, live in smaller homes or own less shit.

Rather than question the tyrannical nature of technological society, almost every political party on earth has opted for more energy efficiency.

Alexa, play us some more energy efficiency.

This refusal to acknowledge the truth leaves the world but two options for change: collapse or revolution.

We may get both.  [Tyee]

Read more: Energy, Environment

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