Kendra Pierre-Louis is a Justmeans staff writer with an interest in creating healthier, more sustainable society. She's particularly interested in the intersection of business, sustainability and economics. How can we structure an economic system that allows business to behave better? She has a M.A. in Sustainable Development from the SIT Graduate Institute and a B.A. in Economics from Cornell Uni...
Sustainable Development and the Energy Efficiency Problem
The idea underpinning the sustainable development push for increased mileage in cars, energy efficient light bulbs, and sleeker more hyper-efficient homes, is the belief that if we can increase our energy efficiency, then we can reduce our energy consumption without having to reduce our consumption overall.
Yet, as an article in this month's Breakthrough Institute Blog details an increasingly robust realm of economic research is illustrating an unnerving paradox: energy efficiency doesn't reduce consumption - it increases it.
This idea, known as the rebound effect, has significant implications for sustainable development. It has, for example, been known for a while that building more highways doesn't reduce consumption - it increases it by effectively encouraging more people to take to the roads. Similarly, it has been shown that people driving hybrid and other fuel-efficient cars erode those efficiencies by driving further. They may be using fewer miles per gallon, but they are not using less gas. Furthermore, the average American home though better insulated and more efficient than houses in the 1970's, uses almost exactly the same amount of energy of as those earlier homes. How? We've managed to erode these efficiency gains by building bigger houses and filling them with twice as many gizmos. Many of us no longer have a single refrigerator - we also buy a deep freezer to throw in the garage. We've taken our smaller television sets and replaced them with larger, more energy consuming big screen television sets. We also use more energy at the same time - we watch television, while surfing the web and texting on our cell phones.
What does this mean about sustainable development?
Posits the Breakthrough Institute Blog:
If the only motor vehicle available today were a 1920 Model T, how many miles do you think you'd drive each year, and how far do you think you'd live from where you work? No one's going to 'mandate inefficient equipment,' but, unless we're willing to do the equivalent -- say, by mandating costlier energy -- increased efficiency, as Jevons predicted, can only make our predicament worse."
Photo Credit: Christopher Isherwood