Monday, March 14, 2011

Can Becoming Energy Efficient Actually Hurt The Environment?

Why we need to go green even when economists say energy efficiency doesn't have always have the impact we'd hoped for.

A recent New York Times article made the argument that improving energy efficiency in everything from washing machines to light bulbs can actually have a net effect of producing more greenhouse gasses. The author of the article, John Tierny, isn’t alone in this line of thought. A growing number of economist and scientists are also claiming that it’s possible for energy efficiency to actually harm the environment on a macro level.

Does this paradoxical claim have any basis, and if so, does this mean we can all go back to our Hummers and incandescent lights now? To answer these questions quickly: energy efficiency alone may not be enough to stop global warming, but it is a powerful tool. And no, you cannot have an all-terrain vehicle unless you actually drive over “all terrain.” Including, but not limited to, a herd of bison.

The Claim
The argument goes something like this. As the things we use consume less energy, the demand for energy falls and prices drop. Humans, being what we are, are not content to take the savings. Instead we find ways to consume the excess energy, or spend the money on new toys. Thus, we create new demand and more greenhouse gasses.

Does this mean that researching and adopting more energy efficient technologies is a waste of time as New York Times article seems to suggest? Absolutely not.

Why We Still Need to Go Green
More efficient technology does not absolve us our responsibilities to behave in an ecologically responsible way. In fact, it gives us more opportunities to be environmentally conscious. Do you really need to light another room? Can you do a smaller load of laundry? Can you carpool or run fewer errands? With more efficient appliances and vehicles, the impact of making a green decision is multiplied. Not only does carpooling in your Prius take another car off the road, but getting 60 miles to the gallon saves even more energy. Only using a light for a few hours a day has an even bigger impact when it uses a fraction of the wattage to begin with.

The extra energy created by new technology can be used for good or bad. It’s up to individuals and out society as a whole to put it to good use.
How would you help make sure that people understand the impact of energy conservation and technology? Government policy? Education? Local programs? Let us know in the comment box below. 

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