Eco-Awareness, NN 288

Larry Speight brings us his monthly column –

The Jevons Paradox

Technical innovations that have the capacity to reduce global warming emissions to 1.5C by 2050, as stipulated by the 2015 Paris Climate Change Agreement, won’t accomplish this in the absence of a cultural change in favour of people actually caring for nonhuman nature. The reason is due to what is called the Jevons paradox. This was conceived by the economist William Stanley Jevons (1835-1882) when he observed that an increase in the efficient use of coal lead to an increase in the demand for coal. In his book The Coal Question (1865) he wrote:

It is a confusion of ideas to suppose that the economical use of fuel is equivalent to diminishing consumption. The very contrary is the truth.”

Research presented in New Scientist, 6 March 2021, gives credence to this through showing that the more energy efficient a device becomes the more people are inclined to use it resulting in an increase in the emission of global warming gases relative to the less energy efficient version of the device. Another aspect of the Jevons paradox that hinders the achievement of global warming goals is the rebound phenomenon. This occurs when the money saved through greater energy efficiency is spent on another energy consuming device or service. An example is when the money saved in the course of a year through running a zero-emissions home is spent on an overseas holiday which would not have been taken but for the savings.

The Jevons paradox means that technological innovations that have the ability to radically reduce the emission of global warming gasses and the consumption of raw materials could in practice increase both. This makes achieving net-zero global warming emissions a behavioural problem that should include the input of anthropologists, sociologists and psychologists in the formulation of government policy rather than, as is mostly the case at present, people in the technical sciences. This point is made by Hatan Shah, head of the British Academy, in the journal Nature, 23 March 2021. He writes in regard to Covid-19 that:

Governments have sought expert advice from the beginning of the pandemic, but that expertise tended to come from people in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) – despite it being clear from the beginning that human behaviour, motivation and culture were key to an effective response.”

The case study from India mentioned below illustrates how even the most worthy of aspirations supported by adequate funding and field tested technology can be foiled in achieving widespread application through cultural blindness.

The Clean India Mission, 2014 – 2019, implemented by the Indian government with the support of NGOs provided rural communities with public toilets and household latrines. In the course of the programme $20 billion was spent building 110 million toilets for 600 million people. Follow-up surveys showed that the toilets are not as widely used as initially expected. In part this was because rural culture perceives open defecation as more wholesome, natural and convenient than using a household or public toilet. Another reason is open defecation gives women the highly valued opportunity to socialize with each other out of sight and sound of the men of their family. There is also volatile issue of caste and who cleans and maintains the toilets. (*1)

This lesson on the importance of cultural awareness and critique needs to be applied to the effort by the international community to achieve net-zero global warming emissions by 2050. One overlooked area that should be considered in this regard is the linear economy in which raw materials are extracted from the ground and after a short life as a manufactured good or unwanted food item are dumped in the ground. The examples of e-waste, clothing, plastic bottles and food give a sense of the magnitude of this, which if it were not to take place, would go a long way towards healing the biosphere. Less waste translates into less emission of global warming gases and more CO2 absorbing forests, peatlands, soil and sea grasses. It results in cleaner air, waterways, an increase in biodiversity and less persecution of indigenous peoples.

With regard to food the UNEP Food Waste Index Report 2021 estimates that 931 million tonnes of food waste was generated worldwide in 2019. According to the UN Food and Agricultural Organisation recovering just half of the food that is lost or wasted could feed the world. Producing this food involves the emission of greenhouse gases as does the decomposition process. The latter emits methane which has a global warming potential 25 times that of CO2.

The Times, 17 March 2021, reports that over 100 billion garments are produced annually from virgin materials and that 87 percent of clothing material is incinerated, sent to landfill or dumped every year. Another ubiquitous waste are plastic bottles. The City to Sea campaigning group estimate that in the UK alone 7.7 billion plastic bottles go unrecycled every day. Based on this figure the global number must be in the trillions.

An almost unseen waste, or you might say misuse of resources, are the array of electronic devices including smart phones and computers that together are called e-waste. The UN Global E-waste Monitor 2020 reports that in 2019 we created 53.6 million metric tons of electronic waste of which only 17.4 percent was recycled. The report states that:

This means that gold, silver, copper, platinum and other high-value, recoverable materials conservatively valued at US $57 billion – a sum greater than the Gross Domestic Product of most countries – were mostly dumped or burned rather than being collected for treatment and reuse.”

Without a radical change on many fronts e-waste will reach 74 million metric tons by 2030. On top of this will be the hard to recycle hundreds of millions of batteries from electric vehicles. The Republic of Ireland for example aims to have a million electric vehicles on the road within nine years. (*2)

The widespread, even universal use, of energy efficient technologies won’t, in the absence of regarding nonhuman nature as having intrinsic value, release us from the Jevons paradox, which if they did, might avoid the collapse of the ecosphere as it has evolved since the last ice-age 11,500 years ago. Voicing the link between valuing something and protecting it the palaeontologist and science writer S.J. Gould (1941-2002) said “we will not fight to save what we do not love.”

On the basis of this understanding social scientists studying environmental change encourage education authorities to put the study of nature, learning to appreciate and love it, at the heart of curricula from nursery school to university. Intrigued by the possible outcome of this Matthew Adams, principle lecturer in psychology at the University of Brighton, recently said:

Who knows how powerful the collective nurturing of a childhood sense of awe and wonder, and a deep attachment to nature, might be were it allowed to blossom and flourish?” (*3)

Such an education might be powerful enough to completely change how we interact with nonhuman nature and therein nullify the Jevons paradox.

(*1) Sarita Panchang, A Year On, the Clean India Mission Falls Short,, 8 October 2020.

(*2) Pat Leahy, The Irish Times, 27 March 2021.

(*3) Matthew Adams, I, 23 March 2021.