What’s not to like about energy efficiency? Every little improvement we can make in that area is a bit more energy saved, a bit...

What’s not to like about energy efficiency? Every little improvement we can make in that area is a bit more energy saved, a bit less carbon sent into the atmosphere, right?


As good a thing as it is, energy efficiency alone won’t help us “leave oil before it leaves us” or keep global warming below 2 degrees C. And even efforts to expand renewable energy supplies — which we already know aren’t proceeding quickly enough — don’t make as large a dent in our dependence on fossil fuels as we might hope.

In fact, University of Oregon sociologist Richard York has found, every 10 units of clean energy we’ve added so far have managed to displace just one unit of fossil-fuel-based energy. Call it part Jevons Paradox, part the flip side of the “resource curse,” but York’s finding boils down to this: without any other policies in place to actually reduce fossil-fuel use, expanding renewables basically just gives us more energy to use … so we do.

“I’m not saying that, in principle, we can’t have displacement with these new technologies, but it is interesting that so far it has not happened,” York said. “One reason the results seem surprising is that we, as societies, tend to see demand as an exogenous thing that generates supply, but supply also generates demand. Generating electricity creates the potential to use that energy, so creating new energy technologies often leads to yet more energy consumption.”

When you think about human behavior, that’s really not so surprising. We’ve seen the same results in many other areas where, as we’ve figured out how to do more with less, our response has been to say, “Even more, please.” Think improved-mileage “autos on steroids.”  Think “green” McMansions. Think “roads cause traffic.”

So what’s the answer? Stop making cars, houses, roads and buses? Stop building more wind turbines and putting up more solar panels? Of course not. The solution, though, is the one thing that most political leaders have so far failed to do: create policies that actually require us to do less with less, at least as far as fossil fuels are concerned.

“In terms of governmental policies, we need to be thinking about social context, not just the technology,” said York. “We need to be asking what political and economic factors are conducive to seeing real displacement. Just developing non-fossil fuel sources doesn’t in itself tend to reduce fossil fuel use a lot — not enough. We need to be thinking about suppressing fossil fuel use rather than just coming up with alternatives alone.”

Odds of that happening? Sadly, a lot of scientists aren’t feeling too confident.