The Jevons Paradox: Does Efficiency Always Mean Sustainability in the Digital Age?

The digital revolution has transformed our lives, offering unprecedented connectivity and efficiency. We stand on the brink of a technological revolution that will fundamentally alter the way we live, work, and relate to one another.

In its scale, scope, and complexity, the transformation will be unlike anything humankind has experienced before. We do not yet know just how it will unfold, but one thing is clear: the response to it must be integrated and comprehensive, involving all stakeholders of the global polity, from the public and private sectors to academia and civil society. The Fourth Industrial Revolution: what it means, how to respond.

Yet, amidst the undeniable benefits, a hidden challenge lurks: the Jevons Paradox.

What is the Jevons Paradox?

Named after economist William Stanley Jevons, the paradox states that technological advancements that increase efficiency in resource use can lead to increased overall consumption of that resource.

The term “Jevons Paradox” flags the need to consider the different hierarchical scales at which a system under analysis changes its identity in response to an innovation.

In the 19th century, Jevons observed that the invention of more efficient steam engines didn’t lead to a decrease in coal consumption. Instead, industries found new ways to utilize the newfound efficiency, ultimately burning more coal.

Jevons in the Digital World

The digital space presents a prime example of the Jevons Paradox at play. Cloud computing, for instance, offers significant energy savings compared to traditional on-premises servers.

However, the paradox suggests that as cloud services become cheaper and more efficient, demand for them may surge, potentially negating the initial energy savings.

Here’s how the Jevons Paradox manifests in the digital space:

  • Increased Data Consumption: Streaming services and data-heavy applications become more accessible with faster internet speeds. However, this can lead to a net increase in energy consumption as data centers require significant power to operate.
  • The Rebound Effect: Energy-efficient devices like LED lights encourage people to use them for longer periods, potentially offsetting the initial energy savings.
  • The Hardware Conundrum: More efficient devices often lead to faster replacement cycles, creating a constant demand for new hardware and the associated environmental impact of manufacturing and disposal.

Mitigating the Paradox

The Jevons Paradox doesn’t negate the benefits of technological advancements. However, it highlights the need for a multifaceted approach to achieving true sustainability:

  • Focus on Efficiency and Renewables: Developing even more efficient technologies alongside a shift towards renewable energy sources can create a positive feedback loop.
  • Promoting Responsible Use: Raising awareness about the Jevons Paradox and encouraging responsible digital practices like closing unused tabs and optimizing device settings can make a difference.
  • Designing for Longevity: Manufacturers can create electronics with longer lifespans and easier repairability to reduce the environmental impact of constant upgrades.


The Jevons Paradox serves as a crucial reminder that technological progress alone won’t solve our environmental challenges. If the Jevons paradox and rebound effect are real, then this has important policy implications. It does not mean that efforts for improving efficiency in homes, businesses, and vehicles are wasted, but it does mean that those efforts by themselves won’t reduce energy consumption and carbon emission.

By acknowledging the paradox and taking a holistic approach, we can harness the power of digital technologies to create a more sustainable future.

kivuti kamau

Data Modelling, Design & Development

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