Monday, 22 August 2016

Confusion About Efficiency

Earlier on I heard a green bloke on the radio say that the great thing about green innovation is that the more efficient we become at using a resource the less we'll use of that resource, and the better it'll be for the environment. It's a popular opinion, but like many popular opinions, it is often not in the least bit true.

In about 3 seconds I thought of an example of where it's false. We used to have to send letters by post. Now we can email them, which is cheaper and more efficient. But that doesn't mean we communicate less - we actually communicate more.

The same is true with the thing that generates the power to email - electricity. We've become more efficient at lighting our houses - not many people use candles and oil lamps these days. But generating light more cheaply does not necessarily incentivise us to use less of it - quite the contrary, it encourages us to use more of it, thereby increasing demand (this is what is technically known as the Jevons paradox).

Underpinning all this is a potentially revealing fact about the whole system of recycling. As was revealed by a social experiment measuring paper towel usage in toilets: if you use them with the knowledge that the paper is going to be recycled you will use more paper than if you know it won't be.

Coupled with the fact that recycling paper means there are actually fewer trees in the world now, not more, and that cutting down and re-planting trees uses fewer resources than the whole process of recycling paper, it probably is the case that if we actually care about the planet's resources we might have to cut down on our recycling.