Efficiency Is Important, but It Is Time to Get Serious About Sufficiency

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Public Domain. The future we want: bikes and trams

We do go on about energy efficiency, and how important it is to increase fuel economy and go net zero on our buildings and homes. Yet as Kris de Decker notes in a new article in Low Tech Magazine, we are bedazzled by energy efficiency but we are not really getting anywhere. He suggests that efficiency isn't enough; instead, we have to think about sufficiency.

Even though appliances are better and houses built to higher standards, we are using more energy than ever as the population grows, along with our houses and our cars. Even as we get more efficient, we are still using more energy in total. That’s because energy savings and greater efficiency actually measure what De Decker calls “avoided energy”- we would have needed even more power plants and generated even more carbon dioxide had we not made changes, but it doesn’t actually reduce the totals.

An energy policy that seeks to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and fossil fuel dependency must measure its success in terms of lower fossil fuel consumption. However, by measuring “avoided energy”, energy efficiency policy does exactly the opposite. Because projected energy use is higher than present energy use, energy efficiency policy takes for granted that total energy consumption will keep rising.

© Astral

After I wrote recently about LED lighting I promised that I would never talk about Jevons Paradox or the Rebound Effect again, but unfortunately, De Decker comes to the same conclusion as I did: that LEDs are not saving tons of carbon emissions because we are using so many more of them.

According to the rebound argument, improvements in energy efficiency often encourage greater use of the services which energy helps to provide. For example, the advance of solid state lighting (LED), which is six times more energy efficient than old-fashioned incandescent lighting, has not led to a decrease in energy demand for lighting. Instead, it resulted in six times more light.

That is a bit of an exaggeration, but evidence from Space is that we are making a lot more light. He even points to real research about a personal bugaboo, LED billboards, and notes that despite their energy efficient components, are enormous energy hogs (although the study is from 2011 and they are probably more efficient now.)

electricity and footprint from billboards

Illuminating the Issues/ Gregory Young/via

De Decker concludes that we have to change the way we think in the larger historical context. For instance, jet planes have been getting more and more efficient all the time, to the point where they now move a passenger with the same amount of fuel as prop planes did fifty years ago. A hundred years ago people used even less fuel to fly, because they didn’t do it. Similarly, electric tumble dryers are getting more efficient all the time, but cannot touch the energy efficiency of clotheslines.

And of course there is my favourite example; the bicycle. If it was taken seriously as an alternative to the car, it would make a mockery of fuel efficiency comparisons.

The problem with energy efficiency policies, then, is that they are very effective in reproducing and stabilising essentially unsustainable concepts of service. Measuring the energy efficiency of cars and tumble driers, but not of bicycles and clotheslines, makes fast but energy-intensive ways of travel or clothes drying non-negotiable, and marginalises much more sustainable alternatives.

Kris makes a persuasive case that efficiency will never be enough, and doesn’t work as well as predicted because of rebound effects. Instead of efficiency, he thinks we should be aiming for sufficiency, focusing on absolutes like carbon reduction or fossil fuel use.


The future we want: high density living and clotheslines./Public Domain

Sufficiency can involve a reduction of services (less light, less travelling, less speed, lower indoor temperatures, smaller houses), or a substitution of services (a bicycle instead of a car, a clothesline instead of a tumble drier, thermal underclothing instead of central heating). Unlike energy efficiency, the policy objectives of sufficiency cannot be expressed in relative variables (like kWh/m2/year). Instead, the focus is on absolute variables, such as reductions in carbon emissions, fossil fuel use, or oil imports. Unlike energy efficiency, sufficiency cannot be defined and measured by examining a single product type, because sufficiency can involve various forms of substitution. Instead, a sufficiency policy is defined and measured by looking at what people actually do.

It sounds harsh. Even Kris concludes that “This is sure to be controversial, and it risks being authoritarian, at least as long as there is a cheap supply of fossil fuels.“ It is also a hard sell, and we have got nowhere on TreeHugger peddling it; ten years ago we had articles about clotheslines every week, but it didn't last because nobody is interested in that much change, thank you. Sufficiency vs efficiency is what we have been talking about on TreeHugger for years; live in smaller spaces, in walkable neighborhoods where you can bike instead of drive. Our posts on Teslas are more popular.

Where I think Kris is wrong is that we don't have to all freeze in the dark in our long johns in tiny rooms. We need better, efficient LED lighting, much better insulation so that we don’t have to get used to lower temperatures and thermal underwear; perhaps electric bikes for those who find regular cycling too hard. But it is important to realize that in principle, Kris is right. Increased efficiency won’t do it on its own; we have to change the way we live and the way we get around. It is all about sufficiency.