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Why tech fixes - even when they’re ‘green’ - can make matters worse

Antibiotics cure many diseases, but also lead to resistant bacteria. The rise of computers, far from inaugurating the paperless office, increased office paper use. The unintended consequences of our actions…

Technology can save fuel and cut emissions, so why not drive more? me2myself/Flickr

Antibiotics cure many diseases, but also lead to resistant bacteria. The rise of computers, far from inaugurating the paperless office, increased office paper use.

The unintended consequences of our actions, whether harmful or beneficial, may be as important as the intended consequences, but are often very difficult to foresee.

Edward Tenner’s marvellous 1996 book, Why Things Bite Back, is rich in examples of solutions to problems that backfired.

Got an environmental problem? Here’s a tech solution

Many of the proposals for resolving the multiple resource and environmental challenges Australia and the world face today are tech fixes: “green” cars, biomass-based liquid transport fuels, “smart” buildings and power grids, and five star energy–efficient appliances.

Far from helping, these innovations - when made in the context of our economic growth ideology - could actually make matters worse. They could increase total energy use and greenhouse gas emissions. Why is this?

Consider the case of “green” cars such as hybrids, particularly plug-in hybrids. Not only are hybrid vehicles more energy efficient than our present vehicles, but, advocates argue, the electricity could eventually be provided from renewable energy sources.

“Energy rebound”, first recognised by the British economist Stanley Jevons in 1865, happens because improving the energy efficiency of any device lowers its cost of operation. The result? People will use such devices more.

So more fuel-efficient cars will to some extent encourage more travel.

The extent of energy rebound is controversial, but a belief in the efficacy of tech fixes has other consequences. If the OECD relies on tech fixes for transport’s problems, it sends a strong signal to presently low-mobility societies.

Another excuse to get in the car

The rest of the world would like to be high-mobility societies like the OECD. Global car numbers could expand greatly in future: light vehicle ownership presently averages around 120 per 1000 persons globally, but varied in the mid-2000s from nearly 800 in the US to under 10 per 1000 in many low-income countries.

Any move to car travel by presently low-mobility societies will greatly raise their levels of personal travel. In Australia’s large cities, personal vehicular travel levels are about four times what they were in the late 1940s. The sheer increase in vehicle-km of travel will offset even the most far-reaching efficiency improvements.

Further, the actual efficiency gains from hybrids and other efficiency innovations are likely to be disappointing. The Ford motor cars produced in recent years in the US are no more fuel-efficient than the T-model Ford.

More generally, engine efficiency has improved, but overall vehicle efficiency has stagnated because of shifts to larger, higher-performance cars, and energy consumption by auxiliaries such as air-conditioning and power steering.

The climate doesn’t recognise cuts per kilowatt hour

Our present economic system has had some success in cutting both the energy use and the CO₂ emissions necessary for specific tasks. The efficiency of fossil fuel power stations and jet aircraft (in terms of fuel used per seat-km) have greatly improved in recent decades — but so has their total fuel use.

Globally, primary energy use and carbon emissions continue to grow. And climate responds only to the concentrations of molecules of each greenhouse gas in the atmosphere, not to human constructs like carbon emissions per kilowatt-hour or per passenger-km.

Similar conclusions could be drawn from proposals to fix other problems, often themselves the result human action. Consider geoengineering, which involves intervening on a planetary level to offset the effects of anthropogenic climate change.

One side-effect of allowing carbon dioxide emissions to proceed unchecked is ocean acidification. Given the likely serious consequences for oceanic ecosystems, yet another tech fix has been proposed: liming the oceans. Putting billions of tonnes of lime in the oceans would itself cause further ecosystem problems…and so on.

Expect to see even more use of pious phrases like “green cars”, “low carbon cities” or “climate-friendly products”. Meanwhile the global carbon dioxide scoreboard on Mauna Loa in Hawaii will continue to show the failure of these policies.

We humans have come to regard technology as magical — able to solve all our problems without the need for any serious questioning of how we are to live. But as the world becomes increasingly more complex, our ability to predict all consequences of technical changes diminish.

Join the conversation

2 Comments sorted by

  1. Derek Bolton

    Retired s/w engineer

    The problem is not that technological fixes are always doomed, but that the easier ones are often inadequate in themselves, and they struggle to keep up with ever increasing populations.

    Is it true that computers increased the use of paper in offices, or would it have increased even more without them? In my working life, I saw a huge reduction in paper.

    One necessary technology is electricity from renewables, but we won't get away from fossil fuels any time soon without a reduction in demand, and some of that will need to come from an increase in efficiency.

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  2. David Vender

    Tutor at University of Tasmania

    The general point here is important and needs to be considered whenever anyone proposes a silver bullet for a complex problem, but your saying that "as the world becomes increasingly more complex, our ability to predict all consequences of technical changes diminish" makes little sense.

    The world (e.g. climate) is no more complex now than it was before, or is it? Also, a simple technology such as seasonal burning can have huge (and hard to predict) consequences, while a complex technology can be benign if its application is limited. The key point is that our physical footprint is increasing, not that our increasing understanding of complex systems is making things somehow less predictable.

    I too enjoyed Tenner's book, but he talks a lot about how things bite back without ever explaining why they do.

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