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Renewables – a Green Trojan Horse? Jevons Paradox

Updated: Apr 21, 2022

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[This article looks at the “green” energy transition through the lens of the Jevons Paradox.

In 1865, William Jevons established that more efficient use of coal (the dominant energy source at the time) leads to increased consumption.

He was right – look what efficient use of coal, its high consumption, did to our planet. Coal was the “dark” Trojan horse.

I believe that with renewables, we’re in the “green” Trojan horse, because car batteries, wind turbines, smartphones, etc. depend on finite resources, e.g. copper.

True, mining and using these resources doesn’t release planet-warming emissions, but there’re other severe environmental and social impacts.

And the more efficient we become with “green” energy, the higher the consumption of these rare minerals. We can’t generate and store “clean” energy without finite resources, e.g. copper, cobalt, graphite.

So, from that angle, we’re in the same position as Jevons.

Have we learned the lesson this time? Or will we continue to pretend that efficiency is the answer to climate change?]

Our “green” energy transition is necessary for reducing greenhouse gas emissions in an effort to slow down climate change.

That’s great and better late than never.

But like everything, this undeniable plus has a shadow.

(e.g. gold-rush style extraction of rare minerals needed in wind turbines, car batteries, and smartphones)

Now, it’s easy to think that consumption and endless growth can continue forever once they run on “clean” energy. Because why not? If materials bought, travel used or food eaten are produced in a way that doesn’t release planet-warming emissions, what’s wrong with consumption and growth?

At a glance, nothing.

It fits into the narrative of endless human progress, or, as cynics say, “progress ideology”.

Once we scale renewables around the world, which is only a matter of time—

We, pragmatic brokers of reason, will “get there.”

How? Through efficiency.

Through efficient renewables and batteries deployed at scale, we will finally “de-couple” our consumption, travel, and energy use from harmful climate change by powering kettles, cars and countries by sun-wind-water instead of coal-oil-gas.

How exciting. How simple.

The polarity of baddies vs goodies, planet-warming vs planet-saving energy sources. Old stale monarchs vs new fresh revolutionaries.

(btw, this article explains why the green energy transition is NOT a revolution)

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if it were that binary?

But I don’t want to sit inside the green trojan horse on the way to tree-less desert moonscapes.

I don’t want to be burdened by carcinogenic stones wrapped in green wrappers.

I don’t want a green apple that’s rotten on the other side.

Efficiency is NOT the answer

Let’s zoom in on it.

In 1865, William Jevons, a British economist, was scratching his head.

He was focusing on how to sustain the unprecedented growth of the British empire without exhausting its energy sources.

In his day, the Industrial Revolution was in full swing; factories mushrooming, locomotives roaring, furnaces blasting, ships circumnavigating.

It was fuelled by an affordable and abundant energy source - coal; but its supplies weren’t endless. The idea of energy efficiency was born.

Contrary to intuition, Jevons established that more efficient use of coal caused higher – not lower – consumption of coal. That consumption of a resource increases as a result of efficient use.

He established the …

Jevons Paradox – improvements and efficiency increase consumption

In his words, “It is wholly a confusion of ideas to suppose that the economical use of fuel is equivalent to a diminished consumption. The very contrary is the truth. As a rule, new modes of economy will lead to an increase of consumption, (…)”

Coal was the dominant energy source in Jevons’s day.

In spite of – because of – its efficient use, its consumption increased.

Today, we are facing what Jevons faced 157 years ago.

We also need reliable energy sources to power our society.

But today … we are smarter … this time it’s “clean energy”, right?

Let’s look at electric cars for a sec.

Electric cars are still a vehicular minority. They’re more expensive and not as efficient.

The plan?

Improve efficiency! So that everyone can afford one to replace “dirty” petrol cars.

It’s already happening (global sales of electric cars rose by 43%). And, for example, the UK government banned the sale of petrol cars from 2030.

So yes, soon everyone will be able to ride an EV, great innit?

But we already know what Jevons knew.

Car batteries will become more efficient; they’ll require less copper per battery, the way less coal was required per unit of energy in Jevons’s days.

As a result, the price per car will go down, consumption up and resource use will increase.

(This principle applies to solar panels, wind turbines, smartphones, laptops, etc.)

Greater efficiency leads to greater resource use.

But what’s the problem, exactly?

Car batteries, wind turbines, smartphones rely on finite resources – copper, graphite, cobalt – and these are extracted at frantic rates (585%).

For example, the biggest copper mine in the world uses 4,000 litres of water per second, siphoning it off from farmers and villagers in an arid part of Chile. (This article digs deeper – although that mine is one kilometre deep:)

This is a gold-rush style situation.

Mining for copper, graphite, and cobalt ruins lives, poisons soil and water and pollutes the air with carcinogens. It pushes people out of their dead fields, as they become “green tech refugees”.

Perfection doesn’t exist, and it’s great that renewables are gaining momentum.

It’s great that fossil dinosaurs are staying buried. But as they do, copper-graphite-cobalt and mined with frenzy.

These minerals aren’t warming our planet. But their Slurpee-style mining is scarring it in many different ways.

Jevons was right about coal - the dominant energy source in his day.

Look what happened to our planet as a result of its EFFICIENT use! Although it gave us many benefits, it was a Trojan horse –

we’re now desperately trying to fix the climate problems caused by its efficient use.

Today, we face the same challenge – to power our society. And it looks as though this time it’s “green” and “clean” because renewables run on sun, wind, and water.

And they DO - but wind and sun can’t be harvested without wind turbines, solar panels, and car batteries.

And these can’t function without graphite, copper and cobalt - finite, rare minerals – allowing us to power our kettles, smartphones, lights, cars, homes, and countries.

We’re relying on finite minerals even though the energy sources are “clean”.

That’s the shadow of renewables. That’s the rotten side of the green apple.

We’re experiencing Jevons Paradox again.

Let’s not scratch our heads 157 years on. We know that “efficiency” drives more consumption of scarce resources.

But will we learn this time and consume less?

Are renewables a giant green Trojan horse?


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