Why Better Efficiency Won't Save the Climate

Engraving by Edward Goodall (1795-1870), original title Manchester, from Kersal Moor after a painting of W. Wylde.
Many leading climate change champions have argued that - if we are to tackle the planet's environmental issues - humanity needs to use less to produce the same output. The most obvious example of this is fuel efficiency, but the concept applies broadly across all means of production.

The general argument is that if we can do the same using less (less energy, less petroleum, less fertilizer, and so on) we can maintain our lifestyles by becoming more productive and efficient, thus producing less waste, using fewer resources and creating less pollution.

Unfortunately, reality is quite different. Since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, humanity has increased resource and production efficiency by massive amounts in every corner of the economy, yet resource utilization and environmental damage has exploded. Why?

The counter-intuitive relationship between efficiency and utilization is called "Jevons Paradox".

"In economics, the Jevons paradox (sometimes Jevons effect) occurs when technological progress or government policy increases the efficiency with which a resource is used (reducing the amount necessary for any one use), but the rate of consumption of that resource rises due to increasing demand." (Source: Wikipedia)

In general, greater efficiency usually lowers the cost of use. When it costs less to drive, we drive more. When it costs less to run a load of laundry, we wash more frequently. When it costs less to buy razors, we use so many at such a low cost that we consider them 'disposable'.

Some items will have a maximum feasible usage (e.g. nobody will use more than one disposable razor a day), but the net dollar-savings generated by reduced spending on that item will simply be exhausted by spending more on other goods or services. Taken as a whole, productivity gains in an economy simply lead to increased aggregate consumption of stuff. In fact, productivity gains + population growth drive real economic growth. The global economy operates on the premise that as we become more efficient we will consume more.

For this reason, unless paired with aggressive government policy and a structural shift away from traditional capitalism, greater efficiency will not help stave off environmental collapse. Indeed, it may actually hasten it as the dollar-cost of doing the damage is reduced.

For an alternative explanation with a few interesting examples, I have included the video below. In it, M J Murcott also provides a explanation why increased efficiency in manufacturing, energy use, agricultural production, etc. won't lead to reduced energy usage:
 
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