Climate conundrum: The rebound effect

Striving towards energy efficiency in our buildings, vehicles and appliances sounds like good, solid environmental policy.  However, in recent years, more and more climate researches have been raising awareness of what they call the “rebound effect“, or the idea that efficiency without regard to a shift in energy supply is actually damaging to global atmospheric health.  Many policy makers and businesses tout efficiency as a guilt-free way of stimulating the economy by encouraging manufacture of more goods to replace current infrastructure and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Consumers would benefit from lower electricity bills, and business owners would be able to reduce their costs of operation.

The arguments against simply producing more eco-friendly machines are rooted in the notion that lower costs may eventually lead to greater use from dirty sources that in turn pollute at an increased rate.  There is also a fear that the demand for energy would remain the same or even increase once focus is redirected from inputs into manufacturing new technology that requires power and electricity in different areas of production.  Some consumers may even up their use of efficient technology under the misconception that they are saving more with their new gadgetry than they are wasting.

While the rebound effect does not completely negate all monetary and climactic advantages of green design, it is contended that the net gain is too small to be considered as a panacea for government and industry in the face of global warming.  There is also the issue of “backfiring”, or situations where energy efficiency indirectly through the market leads to increased demand and may invalidate any gains made.

Currently, there is debate as to how much damage the rebound effect could cause.  For example, in some instances 10-30% of savings from car and home technology could be lost on an individual level alone.  On the macro-economic scale the breakdown is different for rich and poor countries, where the rebound effects are amplified for those that are in the process of industrializing. Poor countries respond more to fluctuating energy prices, and their demand for energy is constantly growing and has yet to reach a point of saturation.  Big economies mean big energy users, which could further damage the health of the climate if cleaner sources are not utilized, consumption grows out of control, or emissions are not strictly regulated.

More studies are needed to determine the overall scope of the rebound effect, but there are a few points that must be considered in light of the potential catastrophic effects our good intentions may have on the environment.  Clean technology is not enough to save us from the hazards of a warming globe.  We still need to reduce our net use of energy, make sure we choose renewable and safe sources of electricity, and scrutinize every aspect of our economies so as not to shift the energy burden to sectors outside the immediate “energy input” scope of investigation.

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