Is efficiency the problem?

A lot of us have wondered, for years, why efficiency doesn’t solve the problem.    Why, for example, Amory Lovins — though he sometimes makes so damn much much sense — is somehow, still, so wrong.    It’s something you can’t quite put your finger on.

The answer has a lot to do with “market failure,” of course, but there’s more to it as well.

Part of the problem seems to lie in an economic dynamic known as the “rebound effect.”   Which comes, basically, to the fact that when energy — or any other “good” — gets cheaper, we tend to use more of it.   As if we were implacable, insatiable, and ultimately doomed.    Which would be a pretty simple-minded view of the situation.

And, in truth, David Owen’s The Efficiency Dilemma, published in the December 20, 2010 issue of the New Yorker, seems to be just a wee bit simple minded.   Until the end, when Owen, having done the work necessary to justify a conclusion, plays out his hand in this fine passage:

“Decreasing reliance on fossil fuels is a pressing global need. The question is whether improving efficiency, rather than reducing total consumption, can possibly bring about the desired result. [U.S. Secretary of Energy] Steve Chu told me that one of the appealing features of the efficiency discussions at the Clean Energy Ministerial was that they were never contentious. ‘It was the opposite,’ he said. ‘No one was debating about who’s responsible, and there was no finger-pointing or trying to lay blame.’ This seems encouraging in one way but dismaying in another. Given the known level of global disagreement about energy and climate matters, shouldn’t there have been some angry table-banging? Advocating efficiency involves virtually no political risk — unlike measures that do call for sacrifice, such as capping emissions or putting a price on carbon or increasing energy taxes or investing heavily in utility-scale renewable-energy facilities or confronting the deeply divisive issue of global energy equity.  Improving efficiency is easy to endorse: we’ve been doing it, globally, for centuries.  It’s how we created the problems we’re now trying to solve.”

Too many people still think that “equity,” as it is called, is a luxury that we cannot afford.   They’re wrong, though I can’t prove it.   But this article is an oblique argument for the prosecution — for “confronting the deeply divisive issue of global energy equity” — that suggests that the matter could nevertheless become plain.