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Death by Jevons paradox

English economist William Stanley Jevons observed that the introduction of the steam engine resulted in a proliferation of steam technology rather than a decline in coal consumption due to improved efficiency.  This became known as the “Jevons Paradox” – which says that energy efficiency leads to a greater use of an energy resource.  A similar process can be seen with food production.  The “green revolution” in the 1950s that produced high-yield rice, wheat and maize was meant to prevent the famines that afflicted people in developing countries.  Instead, higher crop yields resulted in a population explosion – from 3bn people in 1959 to more than 7.5bn today.

This poses a problem for humanity today (or in truth ever since the 1970s) because most of our attempts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions are founded on the belief that new technologies (e.g. fuel-efficient cars, smartphones and LED lighting) will serve to cut our energy consumption.  However, despite these more efficient technologies our energy consumption has continued to rise (although slowing economic demand has caused it to falter in the UK in the past two years).

The same belief has been applied to the deployment of renewable energy technologies like wind and solar.  Government assumptions are based on energy consumption remaining flat so that all we need do is switch from old to new technologies.  For example, the UK government plan to turn off all of the coal power stations and replace them with a baseload of new gas and nuclear plants supplemented by a sizeable deployment of renewables assumes that we will be consuming the same amount of energy in 2025 as we are today.

Energy consumption

Nothing in the history of industrial civilisation suggests that this is in any way realistic.  When the English harnessed coal, they didn’t stop using wood and hydro.  When the Americans harnessed oil (and later gas) they didn’t stop using coal.  The world as a whole has piled energy source upon energy source to feed our insatiable desire for power.

Our consumption of the planet’s fossil carbon has come at a cost.  With atmospheric carbon dioxide at more than 400ppm, we are already locked into temperature rises of 5 degrees centigrade above pre-industrial levels.  We are also looking at a global sea level rise of three metres.  These are now inevitable even if we stopped burning fossil carbon today… it is only a question of time (remember that climate change isn’t going to stop – or start – in 2050 or 2100).

It isn’t that we haven’t been trying.  As Robert Rapier at Forbes reports:

“The highlight of the recently released Renewables 2016 Global Status Report was that the world’s renewable energy production has never been higher.”

Progress has been especially good in China, where concern about coal-based pollution has led to large scale deployment of renewables.  The trouble is that, as Jevons predicted, on a global scale we have used the additional energy from renewables to fuel more consumption:

“While global coal consumption did decline by 1% in 2015, the world set new consumption records for petroleum and natural gas. The net impact was a total increase in the world’s fossil fuel consumption of about 0.6%. That may not seem like much, but the net increase in fossil fuel consumption — the equivalent of 127 million metric tons of petroleum — was 2.6 times the overall increase in the consumption of renewables (48 million metric tons of oil equivalent).

“As a result, despite the record increase in renewable consumption, global carbon dioxide emissions once again set a new all-time record high.”

The sad truth is that while there has been a lot of finger-pointing at climate change deniers, the rest of us need to examine our own “Al Gore Syndrome” (the condition whereby someone uses vast amounts of fossil fuels to fly around the world telling everyone else to take action on climate change).  Unless and until we turn our thermostats down and learn to walk instead of taking the car, we really have no moral case for criticising others on climate change.  Indeed, by our actions, we condemn our children (the ones we claim to love the most) to a very unpleasant demise.

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