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Energy Efficiency: A Treacherous Concept

Energy Efficiency: A Treacherous Concept

We cannot deal with complex issues and problems as if they were much simpler than they really are. This problem is evident with the use of the concept of efficiency in policy discussions and in the definition of indicators. In fact, on a practical and conceptual level, efficiency is an ambiguous and problematic concept to implement in quantitative terms. Of particular concern is the lack of contextual and qualitative information provided in energy efficiency measurements based on simple ratios. This Uncomfortable Knowledge Hub (UKH) series consists of one teaser video and three video lectures reflecting on the conceptual and practical problems associated with the use of the concept of efficiency in the policy domain.

What is uncomfortable knowledge?

Uncomfortable knowledge is a concept introduced by Steve Rayner*. As Rayner puts it: “to make sense of the complexity of the world so that they can act, individuals and institutions need to develop simplified, self-consistent versions of that world”. The chosen, self-consistent narratives and explanations necessarily leave out some relevant aspects of the issue in order to remain simple and useful. In this situation “knowledge which is in tension or outright contradiction with those versions must be expunged. This is uncomfortable knowledge which is excluded from policy debates, especially when dealing with ‘wicked problems’”.

*Steve Rayner, 2012. Uncomfortable knowledge: the social construction of ignorance in science and environmental policy discourses. Economy and Society 41(1): 107-125.

What is quantitative storytelling?

Quantitative storytelling (QST), the systematic approach used to present material on the Uncomfortable Knowledge Hub, does not claim to present the “truth” about a given issue, nor that all the numbers used in the story are uncontested. When dealing with wicked issues, all numbers can always be calculated in a different way and narratives are always contested. QST simply presents alternative stories useful to check the quality of existing narratives and to enrich the diversity of insights about a given issue.

Videos

How should we measure efficiency? (1 min 57 sec)

How should we measure efficiency? Why are energy efficiency indicators always promoting new gadgets and devices affordable only by the wealthy, while sharing practices, which are normally enacted by the poor and that are equally or even more effective for energy conservation, are systematically ignored?  Choosing an indicator of energy efficiency is never neutral, and it generates “hypocognition” (the missing of other relevant aspects to be considered). These points are explained with clear and simple examples.

Indicators of efficiency are overly simplistic​ (16 min 40 sec)

Indicators of efficiency are overly simplistic. Equating increases in ‘efficiency’ (based on a definition of performance referring to just a single relevant attribute to be improved, among many others) with ‘sustainability improvements’ is misleading. In fact, the performance of complex systems can only be perceived and described using different levels of analysis and many dimensions of analysis. A simple output/input can only be defined at one given level and dimension at the time. This entails that indicators of efficiency generate “hypocognition” (the missing of relevant aspects of the issue dealt with in the analysis). Several examples are given to illustrate this point.

Indicators of efficiency are not useful in policy discussions​ (12 min 10 sec)

Indicators of efficiency are not useful in policy discussions. The analysis and the comparison of the performance of the economy of different countries based on simplistic definitions of efficiency should be avoided. One cannot compare efficiency in terms of the use of food of a very old lady, versus that of a young girl and versus that of a breastfeeding woman. When selecting indicators of performance, we cannot compare ‘apples’ and ‘oranges’. In order to characterize the performance of different economies, we have to be able to characterize their mix of production activities, their level of consumption, their level of openness (the terms of trade), the availability and quality of their resources, the goals of their society, etc. If we are not able to contextualize all these factors, the use of indicators dividing one number by another simply cannot generate meaningful information about the efficiency of an economy.

The Jevons Paradox: Why quantitative scenarios based on improvement in energy efficiency are useless​ (11 min 8 sec)

The Jevons Paradox—Why are quantitative scenarios based on improvement in energy efficiency useless? Complex adaptive systems are becoming in time and continuously adjusting to the changes imposed on them. For this reason, the more we increase the efficiency of the technology used by humans, the quicker the particular function expressed using that technology will become something else. This is a predicament that affects not only the validity of the policy based on efficiency (the results will be different from what was expected at the moment of the planning) but also the validity of the quantitative analysis (what has been modeled will no longer exist because of the implementation of the policy). A few simple examples show the relevance of these points.

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Circular Economy and the Use of Policy Legends

Circular Economy and the Use of Policy Legends

The concept of circular economy acknowledges that the economy needs biophysical inputs (energy and material) for its operation and, therefore, generates outputs in the form of wastes and emissions. In fact, these input and output flows are the ones that should be circularized.  The problem with this idea is that if we acknowledge the biophysical roots of the economic process, we must recognize that, according to thermodynamic principles, the inputs coming into the economy and the wastes absorbed by the environment depend on natural processes outside of human control. The biophysical reading of the economic process entails its entropic nature, and in this sense a circular economy enabling perpetual economic growth—i.e. a decoupling of the consumption of resources from economic growth—is impossible. This Uncomfortable Knowledge Hub (UKH) series consists of one teaser video and three video lectures reflecting on the ideological and practical role of policy legends in the sustainability discussion.

What is uncomfortable knowledge?

Uncomfortable knowledge is a concept introduced by Steve Rayner*. As Rayner puts it: “to make sense of the complexity of the world so that they can act, individuals and institutions need to develop simplified, self-consistent versions of that world”. The chosen, self-consistent narratives and explanations necessarily leave out some relevant aspects of the issue in order to remain simple and useful. In this situation “knowledge which is in tension or outright contradiction with those versions must be expunged. This is uncomfortable knowledge which is excluded from policy debates, especially when dealing with ‘wicked problems’”.

*Steve Rayner, 2012. Uncomfortable knowledge: the social construction of ignorance in science and environmental policy discourses. Economy and Society 41(1): 107-125.

What is quantitative storytelling?

Quantitative storytelling (QST), the systematic approach used to present material on the Uncomfortable Knowledge Hub, does not claim to present the “truth” about a given issue, nor that all the numbers used in the story are uncontested. When dealing with wicked issues, all numbers can always be calculated in a different way and narratives are always contested. QST simply presents alternative stories useful to check the quality of existing narratives and to enrich the diversity of insights about a given issue.

Videos

Is a circular bioeconomy possible? (2 min 00 sec)

Is a circular bioeconomy possible? Circular bioeconomy has become a popular concept in sustainability narratives—but nobody seems to realize that the economy was once quite “circular”, for thousands and thousands of years before the Industrial Revolution. The jump in technical progress associated with society’s massive reliance on oil should be associated with a linearization of the economy. How easy is it to revert the existing situation?

The ideological dimension of circular economy (7 min 31 sec)

What is the ideological dimension of circular economy? The use of the term ‘bio-economy’ was first introduced in 1918 and then reintroduced in the ‘70s to flag the dependence of the economy on the finite amount of natural resources (to point at the existence of limits!). The semantic appropriation of the term bio-economy to justify the possibility of a circular economy can be considered as the use of a policy legend to avoid a serious discussion on the plausibility of decoupling and perpetual growth.

When considering the biophysical roots of the economic process, the idea of circular economy clashes against thermodynamics (17 min 54 sec)

When considering the biophysical roots of the economic process, the idea of circular economy clashes against thermodynamics. The economy is not and cannot be circular, this claim can be easy defended in empirical and scientific terms. Complex adaptive systems must be open systems in order to survive and to learn how to adapt to a changing environment. The wide success of the term ‘circular economy’ simply shows a frightening level of elimination of uncomfortable knowledge in the field of economics, in such a way that policy legends useful to stabilize the status-quo can be maintained.

Another example of policy legend: The intolerable US dependence on foreign oil​ (11 min 18 sec)

Another example of policy legend: The intolerable US dependence on foreign oil. The case of circular economy is not an isolated one. Policy legends are often used to frame policy agendas in rhetorical terms, and once established their validity is no longer checked.  This implies that, in practice, they are often ignored. The intolerable US dependence on foreign oil is a very good example of the bifurcation between rhetorical statements and practical action.

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Decarbonization of Liquid Fuels

Decarbonization of Liquid Fuels

What if the explosion of modern progress and economic growth associated with the industrial revolution depends on the massive saving of the requirements of land and labor in human affairs made possible by oil?

If we agree on this point, probably biofuels (a strategy using land and labor to save oil) are not a good idea to boost further economic growth. This Uncomfortable Knowledge Hub (UKH) series consists of one teaser video and two video lectures reflecting on the experience done in the past and on the future of biofuels in EU.

What is uncomfortable knowledge?

Uncomfortable knowledge is a concept introduced by Steve Rayner*. As Rayner puts it: “to make sense of the complexity of the world so that they can act, individuals and institutions need to develop simplified, self-consistent versions of that world”. The chosen, self-consistent narratives and explanations necessarily leave out some relevant aspects of the issue in order to remain simple and useful. In this situation “knowledge which is in tension or outright contradiction with those versions must be expunged. This is uncomfortable knowledge which is excluded from policy debates, especially when dealing with ‘wicked problems’”.

*Steve Rayner, 2012. Uncomfortable knowledge: the social construction of ignorance in science and environmental policy discourses. Economy and Society 41(1): 107-125.

What is quantitative storytelling?

Quantitative storytelling (QST), the systematic approach used to present material on the Uncomfortable Knowledge Hub, does not claim to present the “truth” about a given issue, nor that all the numbers used in the story are uncontested. When dealing with wicked issues, all numbers can always be calculated in a different way and narratives are always contested. QST simply presents alternative stories useful to check the quality of existing narratives and to enrich the diversity of insights about a given issue.

Videos

The basic problem with the idea of biofuels (2 min 22 sec)

The basic problem with the idea of biofuels. If we compare the various inputs (labor, land, water, technical capital) required to supply a net MJ of fossil fuels with the supply of a net MJ of biofuels, we can clearly see the systemic lack of biophysical feasibility and economic viability of biofuels. Current consumption of fossil fuels could not substituted by existing biofuels.

Lessons learned from the large-scale experiment of agro-biofuels in USA and Brazil in the ‘90s​ (9 min 22 sec)

What lessons can we learn from the large-scale experiment of agro-biofuels in USA and Brazil in the ‘90s? The production of ethanol from corn (in the USA) and ethanol from sugarcane (in Brazil) represents an example of two completely different approaches to the production of agro-biofuels. In the US case, they boosted labor productivity but this solution killed the net energy supply.  In the Brazilian case, they boosted the net energy supply, but this solution killed the labor productivity. The lessons learned across the two solutions suggest a central conclusion: there is something radically wrong with the idea of producing fuels from food. 

Can biofuels drive our future? A reflection on the situation of biofuels in the EU and their future​ (12 min 50 sec)

Can biofuels drive our future? The situation of biofuel in the EU is bad: the amount produced is irrelevant in relation to demand, they do not reduce emissions (when considering Indirect Effects of Land Use Changes), and they do not guarantee self-sufficiency (their production requires a significant import of feed-stocks). Possibly, the future looks even worse—the existing supply is based on typologies of biofuels that must be phased out and new generations are not looking too rosy. Acknowledging that we badly need alternatives to fossil liquid fuels does not entail that anything or everything goes. Why don’t we look for processes of generation of fuels not depending on biomass?

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