Efficiency, the Jevons Paradox, and the limits to economic growth

Graph of the cost of lighting in the UK, 1300-2000

I’ve been thinking about efficiency.  Efficiency talk is everywhere.  Car buyers can purchase ever more fuel-efficient cars.  LED lightbulbs achieve unprecedented efficiencies in turning electricity into visible light.  Solar panels are more efficient each year.  Farmers are urged toward fertilizer-use efficiency.  And our Energy Star appliances are the most efficient ever, as are the furnaces and air conditioners in many homes.

The implication of all this talk and technology is that efficiency can play a large role in solving our environmental problems.  Citizens are encouraged to adopt a positive, uncritical, and unsophisticated view of efficiency: we’ll just make things more efficient and that will enable us to reduce resource use, waste, and emissions, to solve our problems, and to pave the way for “green growth” and “sustainable development.”

But there’s something wrong with this efficiency solution: it’s not working.  The current environmental multi-crisis (depletion, extinction, climate destabilization, ocean acidification, plastics pollution, etc.) is not occurring as a result of some failure to achieve large efficiency gains.  The opposite.  It is occurring after a century of stupendous and transformative gains.  Indeed, the efficiencies of most civilizational processes (e.g., hydroelectric power generation, electrical heating and lighting, nitrogen fertilizer synthesis, etc.) have increased by so much that they are now nearing their absolute limits—their thermodynamic maxima.  For example, engineers have made the large electric motors that power factories and mines exquisitely efficient; those motors turn 90 to 97 percent of the energy in electricity into usable shaft power.  We have maximized efficiencies in many areas, and yet our environmental problems are also at a maximum.  What gives?

There are many reasons why efficiency is not delivering the benefits and solutions we’ve been led to expect.  One is the “Jevons Paradox.”  That Paradox predicts that, as the efficiencies of energy converters increase—as cars, planes, or lightbulbs become more efficient—the cost of using these vehicles, products, and technologies falls, and those falling costs spur increases in use that often overwhelm any resource-conservation gains we might reap from increasing efficiencies.  Jevons tells us that energy efficiency often leads to more energy use, not less.  If our cars are very fuel efficient and our operating costs therefore low, we may drive more, more people may drive, and our cities may sprawl outward so that we must drive further to work and shop.  We get more miles per gallon, or per dollar, so we drive more miles and use more gallons.  The Jevons Paradox is a very important concept to know if you’re trying to understand our world and analyze our situation.

The graph above helps illustrate the Jevons Paradox.  It shows the cost of a unit of artificial light (one hour of illumination equivalent to a modern 100 Watt incandescent lightbulb) in England over the past 700 years.  The currency units are British Pounds, adjusted for inflation.  The dramatic decline in costs reflects equally dramatic increases in efficiency.

Adjusted for inflation, lighting in the UK was more than 100 times more affordable in 2000 than in 1900 and 3,000 time more affordable than in 1800.  Stated another way, because electrical power plants have become more efficient (and thus electricity has become cheaper), and because new lighting technologies have become more efficient and produce more usable light per unit of energy, an hour’s pay for the average worker today buys about 100 times more artificial light than it did a century ago and 3,000 time more than two centuries ago.

But does all this efficiency mean that we’re using less energy for lighting?  No.  Falling costs have spurred huge increases in demand and use.  For example, the average UK resident in the year 2000 consumed 75 times more artificial light than did his or her ancestor in 1900 and more than 6,000 times more than in 1800 (Fouquet and Pearson).  Much of this increase was in the form of outdoor lighting of streets and buildings.  Jevons was right: large increases in efficiency have meant large decreases in costs and large increases in lighting demand and energy consumption.

Another example of the Jevons Paradox is provided by passenger planes.  Between 1960 and 2016, the per-seat fuel efficiency of jet airliners tripled or quadrupled (IPCC).  This, in turn, helped lower the cost of flying by more than 60%.  A combination of lower airfares, increasing incomes, and a growing population has driven a 50-fold increase in global annual air travel since 1960—from 0.14 trillion passenger-kilometres per year to nearly 7 trillion (see here for more on the exponential growth in air travel).  Airliners have become three or four times more fuel efficient, yet we’re now burning seventeen times more fuel.  William Stanley Jevons was right.

One final point about efficiency.  “Efficiency” talk serves an important role in our society and economy: it licenses growth.  The idea of efficiency allows most people to believe that we can double and quadruple the size of the global economy and still reduce energy use and waste production and resource depletion.  Efficiency is one of our civilization’s most important licensing myths.  The concept of efficiency-without-limit has been deployed to green-light the project of growth-without-end.

Graph sources: Roger Fouquet, Heat Power and Light: Revolutions in Energy Services

Improvident province: Saskatchewan government debt

Total Saskatchewan provincial government debt, 1977 to 2017

   ‘Improvident’: Lacking foresight; spendthrift; failing to provide for the future.  

This week’s graph shows total Saskatchewan government debt, adjusted for inflation, for the period 1977 to 2017.  The coloured shading indicates the political party in power at the time: orange for New Democratic Party, blue for the Conservative Party, and green for the Saskatchewan Party.

From 2007 to 2015, Saskatchewan experienced an economic boom.  In 2007 and ’08, commodity values spiked and pushed up the prices of potash, uranium, oil, natural gas, lumber, and grains and oilseeds.  Provincial gross domestic product (GDP) rose sharply.  Even after the financial problems of 2008, a revival in energy prices and energy-sector expansion in this province and neighboring Alberta kept demand for employees strong and wages high (for many workers, though not all).  Since the boom began, housing prices in Saskatchewan have nearly doubled.  Saskatchewan went from being a have-not province to a prosperous and swaggering economic leader.

As resource royalties rose and taxable incomes and sales increased, provincial tax inflows initially swelled.  One could imagine that the provincial government would take advantage of these windfalls to pay down Saskatchewan’s debt.  The government did not.  Instead, it cut taxes and embarked on several ill-conceived spending projects.  Corporate income taxes in Saskatchewan are now, according to the government, the lowest in the country (source here).  As the graph shows, after 16 years of paying down the debt (1992-2008), that pay-down ended in 2009, just as the Saskatchewan economy was heating up.

Initially, provincial debt levels stayed relatively constant as the boom proceeded, but debt began increasing in 2012.  Since then, Saskatchewan’s provincial government debt has doubled, with much of the increase racked up before the economic good times ended. Even as the economy was prospering the government was borrowing money.

Having squandered its chance to pay down debt, save for a rainy day, or build up a financial cushion, the Saskatchewan government came to the end of the economic upturn only to find itself in an increasingly dire financial situation.  In its most recent budget, the province took several draconian steps to try to control its self-inflicted deficits and restrain its ballooning debt.  The government:
– shut down the province’s bus company;
– cut transfers to cities;
– reduced funding to libraries;
– eliminated funding for home repairs for people on social assistance;
– reduced wages for civil servants;
– cut subsidized podiatry services (creating a risk of increased foot amputations for diabetics and others);
– cut subsidies for hearing aids for children; and
– eliminated funding to pay for funerals for its poorest citizens.

Projections by the provincial government show that by 2020 the province’s debt will return to levels not seen since 1992.  In that year, provincial government cabinet ministers were forced to fly to New York City to meet with bond-rating agencies to prevent those agencies from downgrading provincial debt to “junk” status.  The specter of a return to those levels of debt shows that the government of Saskatchewan truly bungled the boom.

Graph sources: data obtained by request from the Economic & Fiscal Policy Branch of Saskatchewan’s Ministry of Finance

Earning negative returns: Energy use in modern food systems

Graph of energy use in the U.S. food system
Energy use in the U.S. food system, 2010, 2011, and 2012

Humans eat food and food gives us energy.  Some humans use some of that energy to move their bodies and limbs to produce more food.  Our great-grandparents ate hearty breakfasts and used some of that food energy to power their work in fields or gardens.  Here’s the important part: until the fossil fuel age, our food production work had to produce more energy than it required.  We had to achieve positive returns on our energy investments.  If we expended 1 Calorie of energy working in the field, the resulting food had to yield 3, 4, 5, or more Calories, or else we and those who depended upon us would starve.

Pioneering research by David and Marcia Pimentel and others show that traditional food systems yielded positive returns.  The Pimentels’ book, Food, Energy, and Society, documents that for every unit of energy that a traditional farmer (i.e., no fossil fuels) put into cultivating and harvesting corn or other crops, that farmer received back 5 to 10 units.  For almost the entire 10,000-year history of agriculture, food systems were net energy producers.  Food powered  societies and civilizations.

In the 20th century we did something unprecedented: we turned human food systems from energy sources into energy sinks.  Today, for every Calorie consumed in North America, 13.3 Calories (mostly in the form of fossil fuels) have been expended.  This calculation includes all energy use in the food system: farm production, transport, processing, packaging, retailing, in-home food preservation and cooking, energy use in restaurants, etc.  It also takes into account the fact that 30 to 40 percent of all food produced is thrown away.

Traditional food systems generated an energy return on investment (EROI) of between 5:1 and 10:1.  Because our modern food system returns one unit of energy for every 13.3 invested, the EROI works out to just 0.08:1.*

The graph above shows energy use in the US food system in the years 2010, 2011, and 2012.  The data is from a recent report published by the USDA.  It shows very high levels of energy use throughout the entire food system.  Perhaps surprising, aggregate food-related energy use in US homes—running refrigerators, powering ovens, washing dishes—far exceeds aggregate energy use on US farms.  Similarly, energy use in food services (food served in restaurants, hospitals, prisons, care homes, etc.) also exceeds energy use on farms.  This data shows that the entire food system is very energy costly.  As we’re forced to curtail fossil fuel use we will be forced to dramatically transform all parts of our food systems.

* This comparison does not take into account the firewood used to cook meals in traditional systems.  But even taking that into account we still find that traditional systems have EROI values that were (and are) large multiples of the EROI values for fossil-fueled systems.

Graph source: Canning, Rehkamp, Waters, and Etemadnia, The Role of Fossil Fuels in the U.S. Food System and the American Diet (USDA, 2017)