"...we shouldn't fool ourselves into thinking that swapping our current car for a Prius or replacing our incandescent lights with energy-efficient fluorescent bulbs will strike a meaningful blow against climate change. The real fix to this problem will come when governments focus on research and development aimed at boosting the proportion of green-energy sources in overall consumption." -Bjørn Lomborg
I just read an article in Slate about the counter-intuitive effects of induced demand. Induced (or "latent") demand is the increase in demand for a service as it becomes cheaper or more accessible. A great example is the long-term increase in commuter traffic when lanes are added to the highway. This may seem like a strange notion: If you wish to solve automobile congestion on the highway, an intuitive solution is adding more lanes. Right? Wrong! While the additional lane frees up space and reduce travel times in the short term, the extra lane ends up increasing traffic because destinations (e.g. offices) take advantage of the lower transportation costs induced by the additional lane. It's like quick sand, or a Chinese finger trap: the harder you resist, the more perilous the situation grows! The same can be argued for energy efficiency and automobiles: our cars are more fuel efficient than ever, but many many more people world-wide are driving. The net effect eliminates our efficiency gains completely.
So how do we escape the energy-efficiency trap of induced demand? Instead of optimizing a flawed system, we must make radical changes to the way we consume and produce energy. This, as I've argued in my previous posts, will require more than mere advances to existing artifacts. We will not reduce greenhouse gases by driving hybrid vehicles or replacing our light bulbs. We must change our expectations about transportation and household energy consumption, retrofit cities for a pedestrian economy, retrofit existing buildings to take advantage of the sun's free light and the earth's free warmth/coolth, localize food systems, eliminate "waste" through composting and whole-system efficiency. Contrary to the article's contention, individual actions CAN make a difference, but individual action has to be bold and radical. You should NOT “go ahead and guzzle.” We should try to imagine a world in which “guzzling” is no longer necessary, so that a transition from gas guzzling to no-guzzling seems as natural as walking to the store.