No, You Can't

For years now, climate activists have argued that individual actions like driving more economical cars and using more efficient light bulbs are a crucial element in the effort to address global warming, says Bjørn Lomborg, head of the Copenhagen Consensus Center, and adjunct professor at Copenhagen Business School. But is this really true?

  • Back in the early 1970's, the average American expended roughly 70 million British thermal units (BTUs) per year to heat, cool and power his home.

  • Since then we have made great strides in energy efficiency.

  • So how much energy do Americans use in their homes today? On a per capita basis, the figure is roughly what it was 40 years ago: 70 million BTUs.

    This surprising lack of change is the result of something economists call the "rebound effect." The underlying principle is a decidedly counter-intuitive fact of life, says Lomborg.

  • You might think that learning to use something more efficiently will result in your using less of it, but the opposite is true: the more efficient we get at using something, the more of it we are likely to use.

  • Efficiency doesn't reduce consumption; it increases it.

    For example, energy economist Harry Saunders and four colleagues from the U.S. Department of Energy's Sandia National Laboratories, drawing on "300 years of evidence," found that, "as lighting becomes more energy efficient, and thus cheaper, we use ever-more of it".

    For this reason, the proportion of resources that we expend on lighting has remained virtually unchanged for the past three centuries, at about 0.72 percent of gross domestic product.

    In a nutshell, they tell us that, while increasing energy efficiency is undoubtedly a good thing, it is most assuredly not a remedy for global warming.

    We shouldn't fool ourselves into thinking that swapping our current car for a Prius, or replacing our incandescent lights with energy-efficient fluorescent bulbs, will strike a meaningful blow against climate change. The real fix to this problem will come when governments focus on research and development aimed at boosting the proportion of green energy sources in overall consumption, says Lomborg.

    Source: Bjørn Lomborg, "No, You Can't," Project Syndicate, December 10, 2010.

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    For more on Energy Issues:

    FMF Policy Bulletin / 21 December 2010

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