You would think that if you needed less energy, you would use less energy. Oddly enough this isn’t the case. In a recent series of articles in Grist, author David delves into the idea of the rebound effect, how it effects energy efficiency, and the implications of these in terms of Climate policy.
It takes energy to make energy for the services we use. Energy efficiency refers to the use of technological innovations that give us the same level of energy service using less primary energy.
Energy efficiency is also less expensive–you can pocket the money saved from getting a more fuel efficient car, investing in solar–what have you. But what do you do with the money you save? If you buy an energy efficient car you may respond to the decreased costs by increasing your demand for that particular service; meaning, you might actually end up buying more gas because you’re driving more. This is called the direct rebound effect.
On the other hand, you might choose to indulge yourself with the purchase of a new phone or a tablet or something you’ve always wanted but haven’t been able to get. But it takes energy to manufacture the item of your deepest desire, so though you might be driving less, your total energy use will increase–this is called indirect rebound effect.
If the economy as a whole is more energy efficient, it will decrease the cost of energy, which means faster growth. But growth is almost always accompanied by more energy use which overshadows the energy savings made by efficiency.
But we’re banking on energy efficiency. Models to decrease climate pollution and greenhouse gas emissions 50% (and in some cases more) is due to energy efficiency–but these models are not factoring in the rebound effect. Policy projections could be anticipating energy efficiency savings at 30% by 2030, but including the rebound effect that number might be as low as 15% efficiency.
Unfortunately, the rebound effect is difficult to quantify and based on a variety of factors (the type of energy, socioeconomic statuses, time, location…other economist metrics I don’t understand), which makes it hard to predict how much the rebound effect will actually be. But it’s important to acknowledge the fact we’re overestimating the amount of efficiency that can be achieved.
Does the rebound effect in any way diminish the validity of energy efficiency? Absolutely not. Energy efficiency stimulates productivity, creates jobs, and decrease pollutants. It just means it is more important than ever to take into account the rebound effect–even if it is just anticipating it and having a backup plan, or “wedge“, that will close the gap.
Even if we found a carbon neutral way to generate energy, it would still take years to implement on a world wide scale. We need to decrease energy consumption to stay within our carbon budget–whether you think that’s 450 ppm or 350 ppm–and we need to do it quickly. Grist reports 6 tactics that need to be implemented to stay in the climate safety zone:
1. Aggressive innovation and deployment of clean energy sources, storage, and smart grids.
2. Aggressive innovation and deployment of energy efficient solutions.
3. Aggressive pricing of climate emissions–increasing the price of dirty energy (coal) to keep energy demand from spiking.
4. Behavioral and economic alterations, especially in developing countries, to increase conservation and stave off materialistic driven growth.
5. Behavioral and economic alterations in developing countries to skip the carbon intensive technologies that are usually found in the beginning stages of development.
6. (My personal favorite) “Any f*ckingthing else we can think of.”
In terms of climate policy, the rebound effect is definitely not good news. It means we’re overestimating the amount of efficiency we can achieve compared to what we’re actually going to get. In reality though, it doesn’t discount the importance of energy efficiency and how large a role it will have in decreasing greenhouse gas emissions and shaping climate policy. It does however, show how daunting our task is–even more so than perhaps previously thought–and that we need to stop the masochistic behavior of denying and delaying change.