Originally on Market Forces:
David Owen asks a provocative question in the current New Yorker: If our machines use less energy, will we just use them more? He more or less says yes. The real answer comes in two parts.
For now—over days, weeks, months, and even years—energy efficiency will decrease energy use and emissions. Screw a compact fluorescent light (CFL) bulb into a socket that used to hold an incandescent and your energy use will go down. Chances are you won't leave the lights on four times as long just because light now costs a quarter.
Over time—years, decades, centuries, and millennia—more energy efficient lights and appliances will indeed mean that more people use more of them. CFLs make light more affordable. That doesn't matter to the typical U.S. household, where few light sockets remain unused because of energy costs. But globally—and over time—it does make a difference.
The Jevons Paradox
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.
Jevons is right, of course. We have seen dramatic increases in energy efficiency over centuries while energy use has gone up by orders of magnitude.
Does that mean we shouldn't increase energy efficiency? Of course not. We just need to be clear about what we are getting in exchange.
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