Jevons Paradox and the value of conservation

William Stanley Jevons made an observation about the usage of coal in England in 1865, when the increased efficiency of the Watts steam engine actually caused the use of coal to increase rather than decrease, as he would have expected.  The use of the improved steam engine in a wide spectrum of industries increased coal usage as a direct result of the cost-effectiveness of coal.

Today, a number of people use the paradox to argue that increases of energy efficiency only leads to more use of energy and that attempts at conservation are doomed to fail. For example, “if cars double their gas mileage, then people will drive more.”  They’re mainly wrong for the following reasons.  First, when fuel costs are rising rapidly, such as hitting a resource production ceiling in the past several years, any increase in the efficiency of passenger cars and trucks will reduce the litres burnt, not the actual cost of a tank of fuel.  Airline fares have been increasing even though the efficiency of jet engines increase with newer technology.   Reason: fuel prices are rising faster than airlines can upgrade their fleets.  Westjet is an example of a company that invested heavily in newer efficient planes and it shows in their profits.

On the home front, adding extra insulation will reduce the amount of oil, natural gas, wood, or electricity used to heat your house.  You are unlikely to change the setting on your thermostat far from its normal level.  In a rapidly rising cost of energy environment, all categories of conservation will produce good results.

Secondly, some categories of usage, like transportation of goods are relatively fixed.  For example, the amount of produce transported from California to Canada each week is unlikely to change greatly based on a decrease in the cost of transportation.  We can only eat so much lettuce.

In the infinitely slow path to energy efficiency, our friends south of the border recently passed an energy bill mandating an increase from 25 to 35 mpg, a 40% increase in vehicle fuel standards by 2020.  The increases start in 2011, but there are a number of loopholes related to alternative fuel, trucks and swapping of credits.  The entire bill is 1055 pages and deals with a huge variety of topics from incandescent lamps to biofuel.   Was the legislation partially a pre-emptive strike to ward off more severe legislation on car mileage from California and 12 other states who wanted SUV’s and light trucks treated the same as cars and higher mileage implemented sooner than later?

Around the world, there are countries with higher standards than North America. China has already a 35-mpg standard in place.  Europe and Japan standards are over 40 mpg.
Here in Canada, our energy policies are guided by American legislation. The automotive companies are integrated across North America and have driven the agenda.  Perhaps Stephen Harper will now feel comfortable raising our mileage standards to meet those of his friend George.  Don’t expect to see anything different or better.  The auto industry will have to invest billions of dollars in retooling factories to meet the requirements of lighter, more aerodynamic vehicles.  The aluminum and carbon fibre industries are big winners and steel, being heavy, will be replaced where possible.

Canada’s “new” government has been interested in clean emission technology.  This follows the American lead on misdirecting the public.  Common sense alone makes it clear that burning less fuel reduces emissions of all types, whether CO2 or other varieties, less expensively than technology alone.    The auto industry has wanted to keep its high profit margin SUV and trucks at all costs, even at the risk of its long-term demise.

It is unfortunate that politics is an averaging process where you give a little bit in each direction and end up often in the same location with the same problem.  The American legislation is too little, too late and we will soon see the California’s of this world forcing deeper changes.

What most people don’t realise is that we are starting on the second half of our oil reserves.  This is the tough expensive oil to recover, and the worst part of it will be the gradual decline of world production.   $100 oil will seem cheap in the near future and the resulting economic catastrophe will be unprecedented.

Jevons was concerned that the supply of coal would run out in his time.  He couldn’t foresee that coal use would be partially displaced by the rise of oil for 150 years and that other reserves would be found.  Likewise today, we are concerned that oil is starting a decline very soon.  There is a small chance that we will find technological solutions to our energy needs in time.  There is also a small chance that we will find additional reserves of significant size.

However, there is a much larger chance that we will not solve the problem and we will suffer greatly.  In 1865, there were 1.2 billion people on this planet in a mostly agricultural lifestyle using little energy.  Today, we are 6.6 billion people who use a great deal of energy.

What should be our resolutions for 2008?  Certainly, we should plan for higher efficiency in all of the products that we purchase.

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