Resource efficiency is not a silver bullet.
As technology has advanced, we get more “bang” for the resources we use, such as energy from natural gas. In other words, less natural gas is needed to produce every unit of energy, so the cost of energy should decrease and intuitively, we should be using less natural gas.
But this intuition, in practice, ends up to be wrong. Whenever technology enables more efficient resource use, we demand more of that resource. This is known as Jevons’ Paradox. If energy is cheaper, using cars becomes cheaper, we drive more, and fuel consumption increases.
Jevons’ Paradox extends beyond energy use. For example, more efficient irrigation systems in agriculture ultimately increase the demand for water. And, on average, the demand across all sectors increases by 31.5 percent because of the “saved” resources from efficiency.
Because of Jevons’ Paradox, we can’t rely on efficiency to build us a green economy. Efficiency gains, born from technological advancements, could, in fact, increase our energy consumption.
Technological advancements have also brought us cheap renewables, but they’re not a silver bullet either. Renewables like solar and wind are not 100 percent green, relying on rare earth metals or non-renewable minerals whose extraction damages the environment.
And wind and solar farms also require more space than their fossil fuel counterparts. Where a 200-megawatt natural gas power plant could fit on a single city block, a wind farm spans over 13 square miles. The increased need for space threatens biodiversity conservation areas, which play an important role in the overall health of our planet.
What our planet needs is for us to to consume less to begin with, and this must come from behavior change.
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