Energy Efficiency: Running to stand still?

Pickering Traction Engine Rally, P. StevensonIs energy efficiency a key factor in reducing greenhouse emissions?

Matthew Taylor of the RSA thinks home energy efficiency should take priority, and Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute is also very keen on large scale efficiency gains.

The Jevons Paradox is the idea formulated in 1865 that making coal-burning more efficient will lead inexorably to the burning of yet more coal. Newcomen’s steam engine dramatically increased the use of coal in England and William Jevons’ (1835-1882) book The Coal Question noted this. but Jevons  also saw that James Watt’s more efficient version was what made coal-burning really take off, truly inaugurating the ‘age of steam’. He wrote:

“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.”

A book was published in 2006, extending the theoretical basis for the paradox and giving it strong empirical support.


This seems to be suggesting that if you aim for efficiency you probably won’t get frugality as a by-product, but Egalitarians could argue further that if you aim instead for frugality, you might get efficiency as a by-product. However, far from everyone accepts frugality as a worthwhile aim.

There are two warnings in the Jevons Paradox:

1) in terms of overall energy use reduction, increasing the efficiency of technology is a losing battle.
2) Market-based solutions, in the absence of legislation, are unlikely to overcome the paradox.

So we don’t just need better technology – we also need better social institutions that are able to keep up with the negative effects of that technology. 

An interesting recent example is the 25 pound congestion charge on 4×4 cars in Central London. This is how it worked:


1) A non-partisan campaign group formed and proposed it.
2) The Green Party and others campaigned for it.
3) The (Labour) Mayor legislated for it.

The economic outcome was that 4×4s would have to become (very slightly) cheaper to compensate for the higher charge to enter London. But the social outcome is more significant: 4×4s are just a little bit less attractive – an effect that now has some momentum. As Ken Livingstone said:


“I believe that this ground breaking initiative will have an impact throughout the world with other cities following suit as they step up their efforts to halt the slide towards catastrophic climate change. I think this scheme will also start a cultural revolution whereby drivers in every city in Britain start to think about the impact on the environment of their choice of car and how they plan their journeys.”

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