The False Promise of Energy Efficiency

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

The popular concept of energy efficiency, as an uncoordinated amalgam of individualistic life style choices, will only worsen the crises of energy exhaustion and global warming.

by Don Fitz

An action can have opposite effects, depending on its social contexts. An isolated individual who protests company policy by refusing to go to work could well get fired and become an example used to intimidate others. When an entire workforce stays off the job, it’s called a “strike” and has a very good chance of forcing the company to change its policy.

As positive as they may be for friends and family, individual lifestyles of non-violence do not stop wars from being fought. But a society that eliminates corpo-rate control of the economy gets rid of the need for expansion and takes an enormous step towards non-violence. In this context, non-violent lifestyles solidify non-violent global politics.

It is even more so with “energy efficiency.” It is impossible for individual choices to purchase energy efficient products to have any positive effect on climate change. But, in a democratically run economy, energy efficiency would be a cornerstone of resolving the catastrophic legacy of production for profit.

Energy efficiency is not reducing the consumption of energy. This is true despite claims from green businesses, Al Gore, and Amory Lovins that it is the best way to cut down on use of coal, oil, gas, and nukes. Put these claims out of your mind for a couple of minutes and common sense will make it clear why efficiency doesn’t deliver.

If you want to reduce the use of anything (energy included), what’s the first idea that hops into your mind? Most people say “raise prices.” If something costs more, people use less. If the price of gasoline jumps to $5 per gallon, people drive less.

If prices go down, use goes up

The flip side is: If you want people to buy more of something, reduce the price. Stores advertise sales because they get customers buying.

Energy efficiency is like putting energy on sale. If you insulate your home, get a fuel efficient car, or buy an appliance that runs on less electricity, then your energy costs go down. This makes it cheaper to use energy. Just as making energy more expensive means people will use less, making energy cheaper (or more efficient) leads to the expectation that people will use more.

It is only because we are told over and over again that energy efficiency results in less energy use that we would believe something that violates economic common sense. If a home is more energy efficient, it is tempting to turn the heat up to 72-75 degrees (rather than down to 60-65 degrees). If cars have more stringent fuel efficiency standards, expect more motorists to buy SUV equivalents and drive them more miles. Fuel efficiency could be the death knell for mass transit – expect CO2 to pour from cement companies trying to supply widened roads for an influx of fuel efficient cars.

Products designed to be energy efficient are low cost energy on steroids. First, people use the product more because it is cheaper. Second, once people have spent money on a product, the best way to get a return on an investment is to use it as much as possible. No one buys something in order to not use it. Efficiency tends to result in energy use going up rather than down.

This “rebound effect” was observed as long ago as 1865 when Stanley Jevons wrote The Coal Question. New industrial techniques meant that only one third as much coal was needed to produce a ton of iron. Far from reducing the amount of coal used, the new methods were followed by a 10-fold increase during 1860-1863 in Wales. [1]

In 1980, Danile Khazoom and Len Brookes surveyed a range of technological improvements and confirmed that during the previous century increases in efficiency were followed by increased energy use. [2] Variously known as the “Jevons Paradox” and the “Khazoom-Brookes Postulate,” these concepts are well known by writers on energy but kept in the closet by efficiency proponents.

Ted Trainer emphasizes that if people carefully avoid using their energy efficiency devices, they will use whatever money they save to buy something else, which then leads to energy use during the production and consumption of the other product. [3] Jeff Dardozzi extends that reasoning, pointing out that if, instead of buying more stuff, people put their energy-saved money in the bank, that simply results in saved funds being loaned to others who start businesses or make purchases, thus feeding into the energy increase cycle via an indirect route. [4]

Pat Murphy has a particularly clear analysis of how the process works with US homes, which have steadily become more energy efficient over decades. Newer homes use fewer Btus per square foot, but the number of square feet per person in a 2007 home was about three times what it had been in 1950. “Thus improvements in building efficiency have not provided significant energy savings because as we add efficiency features, we make houses larger, fewer people reside in them, and they use more energy-consuming appliances than ever before.” [5]

A larger goal

Even though energy efficiency, by itself, does not result in lowered energy use, it does not have to be that way. If efficiency were not treated as a goal but only as a means to a larger goal, it could become a powerful tool for lowering energy use.

During World War II, people in many countries willingly accepted a limitation on their consumption via rationing cards. Everyone received the same amount of essential commodities as part of the larger struggle to protect the world from fascism. A similar system of rationing energy use would change energy efficiency from being a cause of increased energy use to a way for everyone to stay within their quota.

Every purchase, including homes, heating, cars, gasoline, appliances and elec-tricity for using appliances, embodies a certain amount of greenhouse gases (GHG) that could be calculated as “CO2 equivalent values.” It would be no more difficult to record these for each person than it is to record credit card purchases. In a rationing system, people would receive feedback if they were using too much energy and needed to cut back to avoid their energy use being halted.

George Monbiot describes a quota system that would begin by dividing the total amount of CO2 equivalency available to everyone by the number of people to determine the quantity everyone would be allowed. Everyone would receive a carbon debit card which would record purchases of fuel and electricity. [6] Once people were used to such a system, the quota could be reduced by 2-4% per year until a sustainable level was reached.

A quota system would not be a series of restrictions and prohibitions. It would be highly flexible: People would decide for themselves how to keep within their limits. No one would be forced to go without a car or buy any particular type of car.

At the beginning of rationing, most people would probably live their lives about the same. As the quota dropped to 90% of original carbon levels, people would have to start making choices. Should we get rid of the spare refrigerator in the garage? Or maybe not cook with the oven all summer when the air conditioner is on? Or endure the pain of using a towel instead of a hair dryer? Or suffer the agony of not having all the lights on when not at home? The only option not available would be doing everything as before.

At this stage, most low income people would not have to make any choices be-cause they would already be using less carbon than the quota level. But the richer someone was, the more changes that person would have to make at the very beginning.

As the quota dropped from 90% to 70%, then to 50% and even 10% of the origi-nal carbon equivalent levels, more and more options would be lopped off; but considerable life style alternatives would remain. With lower levels of energy use, it is very likely that people could still choose either a personal hybrid car (instead of relying on mass transportation, car-sharing and biking) or a home with a spare room for an office, or a clothes dryer or a vacation twice a year. If a person wanted more than one of these, it would probably be essential to have highly energy efficient devices in all other aspects of the person’s life. Again, the only unavailable choice would be “I want all of that and more.”

Equality as a prerequisite for climate stabilization

To make this work, it would be critical to address needs of low income people. Just as those with little money are stuck with the oldest and most polluting cars, they have homes with the worst insulation and greatest need for heating. A serious approach to combating climate change requires a massive social commit-ment to providing energy efficient homes and transportation to those in greatest need.

The most unsettling limitation would be on air travel. Since jets cause exorbitant quantities of GHGs, George Monbiot concludes that foregoing air travel would be the one true sacrifice needed for a climate-sane world. [7]

But even this luxury may only need to be tamed rather than eliminated. Ted Trainer calculates that using his “Simpler Way” could lower electricity usage to “under 2% of the typical rich-world household consumption.” [8] Since Monbiot estimates that carbon consumption must be reduced by 90% and Trainer figures that a 98% reduction is possible, a little arithmetic indicates that a person adopting the Simpler Way should be able to fly round trip New York-London once every nine years and still reduce carbon emissions to 10% of current levels.

Of course, there are big barriers to rationing carbon emissions. The first is that corporate environmentalists are saying things like, “The world is in serious crisis but relatively frivolous actions are all we need.” This is epitomized in Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth,which is on target for describing the problem but then trivializes its magnitude by suggesting that different light bulbs and such will do the trick. Rational people conclude that if no serious response is needed then the problem can’t be serious. Those who truly understand that climate change is comparable to the Nazi onslaught are ready to discuss the extent to which our society must mobilize to halt its collapse.

Inequality is perhaps the reason for trivialization. As long as those with wealth and power live in mansions and fly personal jets, their calls for others to sacrifice so that they can squander will fall on deaf ears. In a carbon rationing system, those who have the most will have to give up the most and right now it looks like they are using their control of industry, government, and media to divert attention from the types of deep green changes that need to be made.

The popular concept of energy efficiency, as an uncoordinated amalgam of indi-vidualistic life style choices, will only worsen the crises of energy exhaustion and global warming. With rationing, energy efficiency would have the opposite effect by becoming a universally valued technique of staying within quota restrictions. What stands in the way is not the unwillingness of the many to confront the crisis but the insistence of the few on holding onto their privileges.

Don Fitz is editor of Synthesis/Regeneration: A Magazine of Green Social Thought, which is published for members of The Greens/Green Party USA. He can be reached by email at fitzdon[at]


1. Monbiot, G. (2007). Heat: How to stop the planet from burning. Cambridge, MA: South End Press, p. 61.

2. Dardozzi, J. ” The specter of Jevons’ Paradox.” Synthesis/Regeneration 47, Fall, 2008, p. 15.

3. Trainer, T. (2007). Renewable energy cannot sustain a consumer society. Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Springer, p. 116.

4. Dardozzi, p. 16

5. Murphy, P. (2008). Plan C: Community survival strategies for peak oil and climate change. Gabriola Island, BC: New Society Publishers, p. 14.

6. Monbiot mentions several proposed quota systems. He believes that carbon quotas of everything besides fuel and electricity would be reflected in higher prices for higher carbon usage. He also advocates a huge decrease at the outset of the system rather than a gradual 2-4% decrease. pp. 43-58.

7. Monbiot, pp. 170-188.

8. Trainer figures that heating could be lowered even more than the 2% level for electricity, though both might be a little higher in urban than rural settings. Mon-biot reports that a one-way London to New York trip is responsible for an entire year of carbon emissions quota for each passenger “once a 90% cut in emis-sions has been made.” [p. 173] But the overall climate impact of flight is 2.7 times that of CO2 alone. This means that a London-New York round trip would be 5.4 times a person’s yearly carbon quota. So, if that individual could reduce other carbon allotments to 2% of current levels, in nine years the person could save enough “carbon credits” for the round trip flight.


  • And, Jeff, that is why its not going to happen – noone will cope even with the prospect of such radical change. And the more we wait, the more radical the change needed. And just mention rationing and socialism to the consumer society and watch them scream blue murder. THE perfect storm.

  • Don Fitz proposes rationing energy on a per capita basis, applying an ever-decreasing carbon-emission quota so as to force individuals to reduce their energy consumption.

    This is at best a market-based, reformist austerity measure aimed at consumers, who are not the primary cause of climate change. Radical reduction of carbon emissions will require changing the way commodities are produced and distributed – not only in the amounts and sources of energy consumed in their production, but also in the determination of the number and kind of commodities to produce. It also requires an end to non-productive uses of energy, like wars and advertising. In other words, it requires a social and economic system very different from capitalism.

  • Good article but oversimplifies a complicated issue. Yes, raising price of energy will reduce some consumption. Lowering price may increase use. Energy efficiency is still a valid goal for many sectors that have inelastic demand. For example, replacing fluorescent lights in 24/7 parking structures with LED tubes that consume only 40% of equivelant energy for same lumens saves electricity and money! We need more innovative solutions to use less resources. Even just turning off one light that might not be needed!