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Either side of this column are featured documents committed to energy conservation. But are all such efforts having any effect?

In homes especially, it has long been found that improvements in building performance lead to improved comfort rather than energy saving. This was thought to be a passing phase, as the national building stock was upgraded. But more recent studies of buildings by DoE still showed the nation had hardly reduced energy consumption.

Environmental economics ideas, described recently in New Scientist (5.9.98), argue that conservation measures may save little energy. The argument is that as energy-efficiency improves, (often in parallel with wealth), energy prices fall and it becomes more attractive to buy further energy- consuming goods or building plant. Overall, fuel use and greenhouse gas emission could even rise. It is the hallmark of the industrial era.

Not all economists agree. Some feel that the urge for conservation will gradually outstrip the urge to consume more. Certainly, trying to save energy specifically, not just reduce fuel costs, is a recent objective, not a hallmark of the whole industrial era. Could carbon taxes be made large enough to change buying behaviour? The energy optimists are betting on some carbon taxes, used specifically for green investment; on alternative energy sources; and on forests to act as 'sinks', absorbing CO2.

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