What do we celebrate then? Human stupidity, surely.

What do we celebrate then? Human stupidity, surely.

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By Gerardo Honty

It is often argued that the growth of the Gross Product is inevitable, if not desirable, and consequently the reduction of energy intensity is a benefit. However, this can have an inverse reading: As costs decrease due to energy efficiency, production increases, product prices decrease and consumption increases. That is to say, ultimately, the growth of the Gross Product would actually be motivated by energy efficiency.

Let's look at some data that supports this approach. In 2005, automobiles in the United States had gained 40% in efficiency compared to their 1960 consumption. But the increase in the number of vehicles led to a 30% increase in the average per capita consumption of private vehicles in the country in 2005 (Hildyard et al, 2014).

According to a study by the World Energy Council (2004), energy intensity has fallen steadily since 1980 at an average annual rate of 1.5% cumulative. This means that energy intensity has been reduced by 36% in the last 30 years globally. However, the world doubled its energy consumption in the same period, going from 6,633 Mtoe in 1980 to 12,476 in 2012 (BP, 2013).

The new BP report cited above brings back memories of the future. Between 2012 and 2035, energy intensity will fall again by 36% but energy consumption will triple, driven by a global Gross Product that will multiply by 10.

This has its correlate in carbon intensity, that is, the amount of carbon dioxide that is emitted into the atmosphere per unit of energy consumed. China boasts of having reduced the carbon intensity of its electricity industry from 900 gCO2 / kWh to 740 gCO2 / kWh between 2003 and 2012 (IEA, 2013). But in the same period, its electricity consumption went from 1910 TWh to 4938 TWh (BP, 2013). In other words, the energy intensity of Chinese electricity fell by 18% but the sector's net emissions grew by 125%.

Globally, energy intensity will fall by 8% between 2012 and 2035, says BP, but emissions from the energy sector will increase by 29%.

This is nothing new. It is a truth that has been known since 1865 when Jacob Stanley Jevons warned that the technological improvements introduced in steam engines achieved greater performance, but did not reduce the consumption of coal but, on the contrary, increased it. “It is absolutely a confusion of ideas to assume that the economic use of fuel is equivalent to a decrease in consumption. The truth is quite the opposite ”he wrote (Jevons, 1865).

Since then this phenomenon has been known as the “Jevons paradox” or more modernly “rebound effect”. Energy efficiency in the use of fossil fuels (or

electricity if it is generated from those) does not result in a reduction in energy consumption or carbon emissions, but on the contrary increases them, as evidenced by the numbers presented above. Only the drastic reduction, in absolute, not relative terms, of fossil consumption can lower emissions.

This will inevitably come hand in hand with a reduction in the Gross Product since renewable energies are not capable of supplying the amount of energy that is needed for economic growth as expected.

It is also often argued that product growth is necessary to eradicate poverty. You don't have to show numbers how much world gross product has grown in the last 50 years and how little poverty has decreased. I will only mention that in the period from 1980 to date, there are still one billion people without access to electricity and two and a half billion continue to cook with collected biomass despite the fact that energy consumption has doubled (IEA, 2011).

It is not true that increasing the gross product is necessary to reduce poverty. It is not true that energy efficiency reduces emissions.

Rather, it seems that, in both cases, the opposite is true.

Cited bibliography:

(IEA) International Energy Agency (2011) “Energy for all. Financing access for the poor. Special early excerpt of the World Energy Outlook 2011 ”. Paris. International Energy Agency.

(IEA) International Energy Agency (2013) “Redrawing the energy-climate map” Paris. International Energy Agency. BP (2013) "Statistical Review of World Energy 2013". London. BP. BP (2014) Energy Outlook 2035. ok.html

(WEC) World Energy Council (2010). 2010 Survey of Energy Resources. WEC.

Hildyard Nicholas, Larry Lohmann and Sarah Sexton (2014) Energy security for what? for whom? Ed Books in Action, Madrid Jevons, William S .: The Coal Question. An Inquiry Concerning the Progress of the Nation, and the Probable Exhaustion of Our Coal-Mines. (1865) Macmillan and Co. London.

* Gerardo Honty is a researcher at CLAES (Latin American Center for Social Ecology)


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