Skip to main content

Thank you for visiting You are using a browser version with limited support for CSS. To obtain the best experience, we recommend you use a more up to date browser (or turn off compatibility mode in Internet Explorer). In the meantime, to ensure continued support, we are displaying the site without styles and JavaScript.

  • Letter
  • Published:

Do alternative energy sources displace fossil fuels?


A fundamental, generally implicit, assumption of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports and many energy analysts is that each unit of energy supplied by non-fossil-fuel sources takes the place of a unit of energy supplied by fossil-fuel sources1,2,3,4. However, owing to the complexity of economic systems and human behaviour, it is often the case that changes aimed at reducing one type of resource consumption, either through improvements in efficiency of use or by developing substitutes, do not lead to the intended outcome when net effects are considered5,6,7,8,9. Here, I show that the average pattern across most nations of the world over the past fifty years is one where each unit of total national energy use from non-fossil-fuel sources displaced less than one-quarter of a unit of fossil-fuel energy use and, focusing specifically on electricity, each unit of electricity generated by non-fossil-fuel sources displaced less than one-tenth of a unit of fossil-fuel-generated electricity. These results challenge conventional thinking in that they indicate that suppressing the use of fossil fuel will require changes other than simply technical ones such as expanding non-fossil-fuel energy production.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution

Access options

Buy this article

Prices may be subject to local taxes which are calculated during checkout

Similar content being viewed by others


  1. IPCC Climate Change 2007: Mitigation of Climate Change (eds Metz, B., Davidson, O. R., Bosch, P. R., Dave, R & Meyer, L. A.) (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2007).

  2. IPCC IPCC Special Report on Renewable Energy Sources and Climate Change Mitigation (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2011).

  3. Hoag, H. Low-carbon electricity for 2030. Nature Clim. Change 1, 233–235 (2011).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  4. Nuclear fallout. Nature Clim. Change 1, 69 (2011).

  5. Sellen, A. J. & Harper, R. H. R. The Myth of the Paperless Office (MIT Press, 2002).

    Google Scholar 

  6. Polimeni, J. M., Mayumi, K., Giampietro, M. & Alcott, B. The Jevons Paradox and the Myth of Resource Efficiency Improvements (Earthscan, 2008).

    Google Scholar 

  7. Druckman, A., Chitnis, M., Sorrell, S. & Jackson, T. Missing carbon reductions? Exploring rebound and backfire effects in UK households. Energ. Policy 39, 3572–3581 (2011).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  8. Hubacek, K. & Guan, D. The net effect of green lifestyles. Nature Clim. Change 1, 250–251 (2011).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  9. York, R. Ecological paradoxes: William Stanley Jevons and the paperless office. Human Ecol. Rev. 13, 143–147 (2006).

    Google Scholar 

  10. York, R. Structural influences on energy production in South and East Asia, 1971–2002. Sociol. Forum 22, 532–554 (2007).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  11. Stone, R. Mayhem on the Mekong. Science 333, 814–818 (2011).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  12. Smil, V. Energy at the Crossroads: Global Perspectives and Uncertainties (MIT Press, 2003).

    Book  Google Scholar 

  13. Williams, J. H. et al. The technology path to deep greenhouse gas emissions cuts by 2050: The pivotal role of electricity. Science 335, 53–59 (2012).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  14. World Bank World Development Indicators. Available at Accessed 20 July (2011).

Download references


I thank T. Koford for helpful comments.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations



R.Y. designed the research, analysed the data and wrote the manuscript.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Richard York.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

The author declares no competing financial interests.

Supplementary information

Rights and permissions

Reprints and permissions

About this article

Cite this article

York, R. Do alternative energy sources displace fossil fuels?. Nature Clim Change 2, 441–443 (2012).

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI:

This article is cited by


Quick links

Nature Briefing Anthropocene

Sign up for the Nature Briefing: Anthropocene newsletter — what matters in anthropocene research, free to your inbox weekly.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing: Anthropocene