Energy efficiency seems to be proving its potential for making our American lifestyle less energy intensive and more sustainable. But is it the same case in the developing countries?
Around the world, more and more people are leading energy-intensive lifestyles, as cheap, efficient technologies bring modern conveniences within reach.
Take the introduction of a new, incredibly cheap, very efficient vehicle in India -- the Tata Nano. It costs only $2,500, and luckily it gets around 47 miles per gallon. In many ways, it is encouraging to see India setting the bar so high with such a fuel-efficient vehicle. But even with that standard, can the world really afford to see millions of similar, new vehicles on the road, with their twin threats of increased oil demand and greenhouse gas emissions?
Similarly, what happens as a growing middle class in China installs efficient, cheap air conditioners and refrigerators in their new apartments? Efficient design makes these appliances affordable, but millions of new units could vastly increase the total consumption of energy. The problem is that the number of units coming online might well outpace gains in efficiency -- and as long as coal remains a primary energy supply the result will be increasing greenhouse gas emissions.
Currently, personal energy consumption is not the main driver of emissions in China; heavy industry is. But growing car ownership, more air conditioners, more energy-intensive lifestyles will likely be the country's energy challenge of the future, explain economists Daniel Rosen and Trevor Houser.
If we expand our thinking about rebound effects to the world economy, we start to see the scale of the problems we face. For example, even as America's refrigerators have become more and more efficient, the manufacturing of new units -- and other heavy industry -- has increasing emissions abroad. In fact, a UC Berkeley study published in this month's Journal of Environmental Economics and Management uses newly available data to show that China's emissions have far exceeded forecasts -- even while energy efficiency remains a national priority.
In some ways, these examples fit Jevons' Paradox more aptly than Americans and our new Priuses. This is because in 1865 Jevons observed not just an efficiency increase in the technology of steam engines; he was also witnessing a rising wave of the Industrial Revolution. At that time, England was still developing the full potential of coal as a fuel source, bringing thousands of people into more energy-intensive lifestyles.
To say that development worldwide should somehow take a different path risks being extremely unfair. Why shouldn't those in developing countries enjoy the same standard of life that we do? But we live in an age of peak oil and growing evidence for worsening climate change, so it is still important to think about a potential alternative.
The alternative has two parts: From the demand side, we need to reach towards radical resource productivity, and on the supply side we must greatly expand the use of renewable energy.
The demand side -- where people actually use energy in their day-to-day lives -- needs to go beyond simple efficiency increases. Radical resource productivity means looking at the whole system of how we design homes, vehicles, and industrial processes to find breakthrough energy savings. For example, whole systems thinking goes way beyond improving the efficiency of home furnaces -- it seeks ways for those furnaces to be eliminated altogether by passive solar design and advanced insulation.
But even radical resource productivity cannot fully deal with the needs of rapidly developing populations. We must also change the way we supply the world's energy. Here there is a huge opportunity for bringing up to scale the advancements in wind and solar power that are happening all the time. We can also take much better advantage of small, distributed power sources -- such as plug-in hybrid vehicles and on-site cogeneration -- in the evolution of the electrical grid. In combination, renewable and distributed power sources can meet the increasing demand for energy worldwide without resulting in rapidly escalating greenhouse gas emissions.
Taken together, radical resource productivity and renewable energy supplies bypass the global rebound effect created by development. They are, in fact, a primary means of using technology to create sustainable development.
We can actually see hopeful examples of this kind of development in the works now. China is developing a completely sustainable city on an island off of Shanghai, and Abu Dhabi is conducting an even more ambitious experiment to make its new Masdar City produce more clean energy than it uses. If developing countries continue to make radical sustainability leaps like these then will not have only beaten Jevons' Paradox -- they will have surpassed us in the process.