The limits of energy efficiency

With the recent passage of the Energy Efficiency Directive through the key EU parliamentary committee on Industry, Research and Energy (ITRE), it is clear that the idea of managing emissions, improving energy security and increasing the competitiveness of the economy through managing energy efficiency remains a key policy objective. The Directive has only one more stage to pass: a vote in the whole plenary in September. The Directive obliges Member States to prepare a long-term strategy to increase the energy efficiency of their entire building sector by 2050 and to set up an energy efficiency obligation scheme that ensures that utilities reach 1.1 – 1.5% energy saving of their end-users. In addition, the Directive aims to stimulate technologies such as Combined Heat and Power in the utilities sector.

In fact many commentators and policymakers continue to believe that energy efficiency alone can address much of the CO2 problem – and that it can do so at very low cost (or even negative cost), at least compared to a ‘do nothing case’.  But  any successful policy toward mitigation of CO2 emissions must centre on CO2 pricing. Energy efficiency can only be a contributory factor and, in some circumstances, can even have a negative long-term impact if the centrality of CO2 pricing is not recognised.

The impact of energy efficiency policy on CO2 emissions is explored in a paper by a Shell colleague, Jonathan Sample and was recently published in The European Energy Review, but also attached here [The Limits of Energy Efficiency]. The paper looks at the issue of energy efficiency and examines some of the established beliefs about its benefits and impacts. It highlights some important missing nuances in the logic linking efficiency improvements with reductions in CO2 emissions and argues that in the absence of a credible price on CO2 emissions, the effectiveness of energy efficiency measures is greatly reduced. In fact, in some cases they may even make the problem of CO2 emissions worse in the long term.

The key to understanding the impact of energy efficiency on CO2 emissions lies in the long-term competition between the costs of using fossil fuels on the one hand, and of using non-fossil fuels (the latter of which, in this paper, includes fossil-based fuels using CCS technology) on the other. Specifically, innovations that improve the efficiency with which fossil fuel is converted into energy service, but which don’t do the same for non-fossil fuels,  make fossil fuels fundamentally more affordable compared to non-fossil fuels, even though they reduce the rate of consumption in the short term. An example of this is a policy which encourages improvements in (internal combustion) vehicle efficiency. In the paper, this is referred to as a “carbon-augmenting” policy (versus a carbon-neutral policy).

Consider the example of a driver who initially uses a 30 mpg (miles per gallon) car to drive 300 miles per week when gasoline costs $4/gallon. If at some point in the future, that same driver acquires a car that achieves 60 mpg, he can carry on driving the same distance per week even if the price of gasoline were to rise to $8/gallon (all other things being equal).

At first sight, the improvement in efficiency seems a good thing: after all, there has been an immediate improvement in the driver’s living standards, as driving is now cheaper than it was before. So how might there be a problem? The greater affordability of fossil fuels caused by such improvements in energy efficiency serves to increase the future supply of fossil fuels – again a matter that Jevons brought up. The increased efficiency of the car effectively has made it profitable to produce oil with higher extraction costs without causing the driver to drive fewer miles. In the short term, the increase in productivity, net income and wealth, which is brought about by higher efficiency, contributes an additional boost to energy affordability (this ‘income effect’ will not be considered further in this paper, however).

In the long run, then, the initial halving in the rate of consumption from replacing a 30mpg car with a 60mpg car does not represent a reduction in CO2 emissions: instead of avoided emissions, it may represent only a postponement, plus a long-term addition to the stock of economically extractable resources.

CO2 pricing (through measures such as cap-and-trade or taxation) is the key to unlocking the full potential of energy efficiency to reduce CO2 emissions. In the absence of an offsetting price on CO2 emissions, measures to encourage (specifically carbon-augmenting) energy efficiency can lead to higher ultimate/potential emissions. However, where an offsetting CO2 price is applied, this can be avoided. Importantly, where there is an increase in carbon-augmenting efficiency, it is the price placed on CO2 emissions that leads to the offsetting reduction in economically extractable fossil fuels. In other words, it is the CO2 price, which does most of the work to avoid emissions, and not the efficiency increase. Unless such a price on CO2 emissions is established, carbon-augmenting energy efficiency increases should not be viewed as an “alternative” or equivalent means of reducing CO2 emissions.

In the short term, more effective and less risky options than energy efficiency measures are available in the form of transitions such as coal-to-gas switching. The effectiveness of energy efficiency measures (particularly in their carbon-augmenting form) will be greatly constrained until a CO2 pricing system is in place. Before this comes about, it is necessary to pursue more realistic, yet cost-effective alternatives.