A Tour of the Jevons Paradox: How Energy Efficiency Backfires

A Tour of the Jevons Paradox: How Energy Efficiency Backfires
Fix, Blair. (2024). Economics from the Top Down. 18 May. pp. 1-32. (Article - Magazine; English).

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https://economicsfromthetopdown.com/2024/05/18/a-tour-of-the-jevons-paradox-how-energy-efficiency-backfires/, https://www.econstor.eu/handle/10419/295211, https://yorkspace.library.yorku.ca/items/eb1c2db5-c752-4d14-8767-31c5d6fa4c43

Abstract or Brief Description

When it comes to our sustainability problems, striving for greater resource efficiency seems like an obvious solution. For example, if you buy a new car that’s twice as efficient as your old one, it should cut your gasoline use in half. And if your new computer is four times more efficient than your last one, it should cut your computer’s electric bill fourfold.

In short, boosting efficiency seems like a straightforward way to reduce your use of natural resources. And for you personally, efficiency gains may do exactly that. But collectively, efficiency seems to have the opposite effect As technology gets more efficient, we tend to consume more resources. This backfire effect is known as the ‘Jevons paradox’, and it occurs for a simple reason. At a social level, efficiency is not a tool for conservation; it’s a catalyst for technological sprawl.1

Here’s how it works. As technology gets more efficient, it cheapens the service that it provides. And when services get cheaper, we tend to use more of them. Hence, efficiency ends up catalyzing greater consumption.

Take the evolution of computers as an example. The first computers were room-sized machines that gulped power while doing snail-paced calculations. In contrast, modern computers deliver about a trillion times more computation for the same energy input. Now, in principle, we could have taken this trillion-fold efficiency improvement and reduced our computational energy budget by the same amount. But we didn’t.

Instead, we took these efficiency gains and invested them in technological sprawl. We took more efficient computer chips and put them in everything — phones, TVs, cars, fridges, light bulbs, toasters … not to mention data centers. So rather than spur conservation, more efficient computers catalyzed the consumption of more energy.

In this regard, computers are not alone. As you’ll see, efficiency backfire seems to be the rule rather than the exception. Far from delivering a cure for our sustainability woes, efficiency gains appear to be a root driver of the over-consumption disease.



Publication Type

Article - Magazine


efficiency energy Jevons Paradox


BN International & Global
BN Production
BN Science & Technology
BN Business Enterprise
BN Civilization & Social Systems
BN Comparative
BN Growth
BN Industrial Organization

Depositing User

Jonathan Nitzan

Date Deposited

20 May 2024 01:05

Last Modified

21 May 2024 14:15



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