For a long time, authorities from the Pearl River Delta area to the Guangdong provincial government have regarded improving energy efficiency as a key method of environmental protection.
While the province has achieved good results in this effort, reflected by the decreasing energy consumption per unit of output in recent years, its total energy consumption has kept rising.
Guangdong’s total energy consumption in 2014 was double that in 2004.
In fact, the province has little confidence that it can control total energy consumption.
The authorities have set caps on total energy consumption, but the limit has increased throughout the years.
For a government that aims to improve efficiency, it is naturally difficult to realize a reduction in energy consumption and carbon emissions.
A century ago, the renowned British economist William Stanley Jevons discussed this problem in his book The Coal Question.
In Jevons’ time, Britain’s factories were mainly powered by coal.
Although people realized coal was a non-renewable source of energy, they believed that an improvement in energy efficiency was equal to a saving in energy.
But the economist pointed out that people had confused the concepts.
Improvement of energy efficiency will lead to a so-called Jevons Paradox.
He cited data to show that while the efficiency of the steam engine increased 10 times within a century, the demand for coal in Britain also climbed rapidly, instead of falling.
He observed that the progress of steam technology would increase the machine’s value.
Every time energy efficiency was improved, the adoption of steam engines expanded.
So, with a wider use of steam engines and coal, society was actually demanding larger amounts of coal.
The same logic appears in many other areas and in various ways.
Some economists found that adoption of energy-saving cars by drivers resulted in longer driving distances and more gasoline consumption and pollution.
From this perspective, it is unrealistic to rely on technological advancement to protect the environment.
To realize real “green” development, the key is to advocate a thrifty lifestyle.
Only in this way can we reduce total energy consumption.
This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on March 21.
Translation by Myssie You
[Chinese version 中文版]
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