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3.11 Dealing with Climate: Jevons Paradox

Author: Rebecca Thompson

ABSTRACT: This paper will explain and demonstrate Jevons’ Paradox regarding environmental sustainability with thorough explanation and examples. Jevons Paradox refers to the idea that technological advancements in sustainability or increased efficiency results in increased natural resource consumption, creating a rebound effect. Examples in the vehicle and coal industry will be brought to attention to explain real world applications of Jevons’ Paradox. This paper seeks to understand Jevons’ Paradox and determine whether it is an accurate concept in the world of sustainability. Alternative solutions to the climate crisis will be addressed such as public policy changes; like carbon taxing or a cap-and-trade system, as well as encouraging systemic change, such as degrowth and agrowth. Overall, it is well known that the greatest human-made shift to combat the climate crisis is simplicity and adopting a 1.5-degree lifestyle. Simplifying our lifestyles will decrease carbon emissions in a plethora of sectors and solving the climate crisis but implementing all methods of climate change mitigation will be necessary for the future.

MAIN

Many people understand successful sustainable technology to be technological advancements that increase energy efficiency. While this is true, Jevons’ paradox is not being added into the mix. Jevons’ paradox is the belief that increased sustainable technology leads to increased natural resource consumption (Polimeni et al., 2006). The paradox explains that due to increased efficiency people live under the assumption that over consumption of energy, in turn, does not have an impact on carbon emissions. This leads to a rebound effect. Examples like the hybrid car or the coal blast furnace illustrate how this paradox is apparent in everyday life and in larger industries. People must understand that even if the technological advancements increase efficiency, overconsumption will still lead to worsening the climate crisis.

When analyzing sustainable technology, the hybrid car comes to mind. The hybrid car uses less gas than a normal gas car and is partially electric. This innovation is clearly a great step forward in solving the issue of carbon emissions from vehicle transportation. Jevons’ paradox argues however, that because of consumer behaviour (Polimeni, 2006) and people thinking they are emitting less carbon into the atmosphere while driving a hybrid vehicle, they will drive more often. This eventually results in the same amount of energy and emissions being wasted, or in some cases, more.

Another prevalent example of Jevons’ paradox is the case of the coal blast furnace. This is particularly interesting because it represents the way that capitalists and big industries see sustainable technological advancements as an excuse to use more energy than necessary. In the Alcott’s article, Jevons’ Paradox, he explains that if the quantity of coal used in a blast furnace is lessened compared to the yield of industrial metals, the profits will increase, new capital will be attracted while the demand for it increases, eventually increasing the number of furnaces and therefore making up for the diminished coal consumption of each (supposedly sustainable) furnace (2005). Jevons’ paradox is a significant issue because it is driven by economics, capitalism, and government policies which contribute greatly to the climate crisis.

Some changes that can be made to mitigate Jevons’ paradox and the rebound effect include policy changes and systemic changes. Energy rebound effects are driven by a drop in the cost of energy services so energy pricing can compensate for the reduction by increasing the cost of energy (Freire-González, 2021). Energy pricing methods such as cap and trade or carbon taxing will reduce the amount of carbon consumed, therefore lessening the amount of carbon released into the atmosphere. Systemic changes like degrowth promote changes in the way humans relate to the environment, leading to the eradication of consumerism and material accumulation as a lifestyle, which both contribute to the capitalist social structures that perpetuate climate change (Freire-González, 2021). Degrowths alternative is agrowth. Agrowth is the idea that economic growth should not be at the forefront of systemic change (Freire-González, 2021). Therefore, economic growth must be irrelevant when solving Jevons’ paradox with reference to the concept of agrowth, and new societal targets would be fixed globally and oriented to achieve a sustainable level of resource consumption. The issue with agrowth is having a globally agreed upon sustainable target that will likely decrease GDP and be undesirable for the capitalists and governments of the world.

It is well known in the sustainability world that simplicity is one of the most effective shifts humans can make to mitigate the climate crisis. Therefore, shifting to a 1.5-degree lifestyle is imperative in the fight against climate change. Living within our means will reduce overconsumption of energy and therefore reduce the amount of carbon being released into the atmosphere due to anthropogenic actions. Creating new technologies to reduce carbon emissions and consumption will be effective, but only if humans collectively simplify living.

RESOURCES

Polimeni, John M., and Raluca I. Polimeni. “Jevons’ Paradox and the Myth of Technological Liberation.” Ecological Complexity, vol. 3, no. 4, 2006, pp. 344-353.

Freire-González, Jaume. “Governing Jevons’ Paradox: Policies and Systemic Alternatives to Avoid the Rebound Effect.” Energy Research & Social Science, vol. 72, 2021, pp. 101893.

Alcott, Blake. “Jevons’ Paradox.” Ecological Economics, vol. 54, no. 1, 2005, pp. 9-21.

BIOGRAPHY

Rebecca Thompson is currently in her fourth year of her undergraduate degree studying in the Environment and Urban Sustainability program at Ryerson University.  

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