Jevons paradox

January 4, 2011, 4:17 pm
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Jevons paradox (also known as the rebound effect) is the observation that greater energy efficiency, while in the short-run producing energy savings, may in the long-run result in higher energy use. It was first noted by the British economist W. Stanley Jevons, in his book The Coal Question published in 1865, where he argued that “it is a confusion of ideas to suppose that the economical use of fuel is equivalent to diminished consumption. The very contrary is the truth." The Jevons paradox is an observation based on economic theory and long-term historical studies, and its magnitude is a matter of considerable dispute: if it is small (i.e., the expansion of fuel using activities is less than 100% of the improvement in efficiency) then energy efficiency improvements will lead to lower energy consumption, if it is large (i.e., the expansion of fuel using activities is greater than 100% of the improvement in efficiency) then energy consumption will be higher. A key problem in resolving the two positions is that it is not possible to run ‘control’ experiments to see whether energy use is higher or lower than if there had been no efficiency improvements—there is, after all, only one future. A further problem is that the rebound effect has differing impacts at all levels of the economy, from the micro-economic (the consumer) to the macro-economic (the national economy), and its magnitude at all levels of the economy has not yet been determined. Nonetheless, there is mounting evidence that at the national level it is not uncommon for total resource consumption to grow even while efficiency improves, suggesting at least that improvements in efficiency are not necessarily sufficient for curtailing consumption (although, once again, this does not necessarily demonstrate that resource consumption grows because of improvements in efficiency).

Further Reading

  • Alcott, B. 2005. Jevons’ Paradox. Ecological Economics 54: 9-21.
  • Clark, B. and J.B. Foster. 2001. William Stanley Jevons and The Coal Question: an Introduction to Jevons’s ‘Of the Economy of Fuel.’ Organization & Environment 14(1): 93-98.
  • Herring, Horace. 1998. Does Energy Efficiency Save Energy: The Economists Debate. EERU Report No 074 - July 1998.
  • W. Stanley Jevons. The Coal Question; An Inquiry concerning the Progress of the Nation, and the Probable Exhaustion of our Coalmines. 2nd edition, revised. (London: Macmillan and Co., 1866).
  • York, Richard. 2006. “Ecological Paradoxes: William Stanley Jevons and the Paperless Office.” Human Ecology Review 13(2): 143-147.
  • York, R., E. A. Rosa, and T. Dietz. 2004. The Ecological Footprint Intensity of National Economies. Journal of Industrial Ecology 8(4): 139-154.


Herring, H. (2011). Jevons paradox. Retrieved from


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