The tragedy of energy efficiency

  • Posted on: 1 July 2016
  • By: Yamina SAHEB

Energy efficiency is nitty-gritty. It’s down to earth, it’s technical. Long story short, it’s the polar opposite of sexy.

At least that’s what we hear day in, day out from those who have a hard time seeing anything more to energy efficiency than a slew of 1000-pages building energy codes and a bunch of stickers with happy CFL cartoon faces.

And to a certain extent, that’s not entirely false. At its core, improving energy efficiency is inherently technical. The energy efficiency of a given system, whether an appliance, a car, or a building can be quite well defined from a physical standpoint: energy service out over energy consumed in. But stopping there would be missing the technical tree for the societal forest.

In fact, when you start moving up from isolated systems to considering energy efficiency over society as a whole, the view gets much better.

At the society level, energy efficiency starts having a number of side, or rather societal, benefits: reduced energy imports, reduced greenhouse gas emissions, improved health, reduced fuel poverty, improved productivity, you name it. All of these share one essential trait: they benefit all members of society, any member can extract private profit from them, and they can only be achieved collectively.

Doesn’t this ring a bell? This facial composite does look suspiciously like the textbook definition of a common, as given by Garett Hardin in his classic 1968 article, The Tragedy of the Commons.

Energy efficiency also has a tragedy of its own: it’s not recognized as a common.

This even plays out beyond the national scale at a global level. Effective energy efficiency policies, if applied globally, would most likely soothe the energy markets. Who would question that lower prices for energy imports would benefit all? Yet, some country would want to have their cake and eat it, letting others make the necessary investments to improve their efficiency while reaping the benefits of cheaper energy. The very same tragedy is unfolding in stereo for climate change mitigation: aren’t we now hearing calls that smaller countries shouldn’t waste resources to reduce their emissions when the largest carbon footprints in the world remain inactive?

Since the groundbreaking work of Hardin, we know that an unmanaged common will be abused by some until it is eventually destroyed for allWill we let energy efficiency go to waste?

Hardin had used the example of a medieval pasture to illustrate his tragedy of the commons and its possible solutions. Surely we can be as smart as some13th century European villagers… Right?

This post was published for the first time on March 5, 2013 on the IEA sustainable building centre web site,