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A person that is able to change their mind when evidence contradicts their understanding of a subject means that person will have a better understanding of reality. I thought energy efficiency was important; now I’m not so sure.

I’ve recently finished a book called The Conundrum by David Owen. In part, it argues that energy efficiency can make our environmental problems worse. This is somewhat upsetting personally, because I also recently decided to search for jobs that focus on energy efficiency retrofits to address climate change. However, I think Owen makes several good points.

Air travel is one example. It’s a fairly unique product in today’s landscape, because much of the cost of a ticket is for fuel (around 30%). Imagine wanting to fly 50 years ago in the USA; a flight would cost three times as much. Since then, the number of flights have doubled and fuel burned per seat has halved. There is clearly a correlation (though admittedly maybe not causation) between higher energy efficiency and increased overall consumption.

correlation

As flights became cheaper, more and more people flew. The question is whether increased efficiency in other areas (eg. household appliances) correlates with increased overall energy use. Owen cites experts that say the increased consumption may only be 20% of the gain in efficiency.

To illustrate, let’s take a home with new appliances that use 50% less energy, but the users then use them 20% more:      100 kWh * 50% * 120% = 60 kWh

This is clearly a reduction in electricity use which is good, but is it the end of the story? Say your monthly bill was $250. After replacing your appliances, you pay $150 for electricity. What would you do with the extra $100 dollars? Some activities have less environmental impact (a back massage vs. air travel), but this is a bit of a trick question because virtually every activity that involves money involves consumption. Spending now is consumption, saving is really just paying for future consumption, and paying down debt is paying for past consumption. What we really need is reduced consumption, but no one is likely to destroy the extra money or work fewer hours.

As energy has become cheaper and more productive, overall consumption has increased. But this change has brought about monumental shifts in social equality. With cheap energy, we can focus on the moral wrongness of slavery rather then economic arguments. Now almost anyone, not just the elite, can visit New Zealand or Paris or the Caribbean for a week or two. And the internet and cheap computers now provide access to education to more people than lived on the entire earth in 1959.

So is energy efficiency still valuable? Probably, but Owen’s arguments are strong enough for me to include the thought, “where does that extra money go?” whenever I read an article about energy efficiency. Have you changed your mind or do you see holes in this argument? Comment below.

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