Energy Efficiency, the Rebound Effect, and Climate Policy

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.


Heat Waves, and Floods, and Droughts, Oh My!

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a report concluding that climate change will make heat waves, floods, droughts and other natural disasters not only more common, but more intense, in the coming decades. These impending disasters will (hopefully) force nations to rethink the way they deal with natural disasters not only as they occur, but taking preventative measures that could save lives, money and resources.

The IPPC report notes that on a global scale, frequency and intensity of daily temperature extremes will be seen in the coming century. Meaning that it is very likely the length and virulence of heat waves will also increase. Imagine those historically hot days that come around once every few decades, and visualize them happening once a year.

Though the IPCC report found greenhouse gas emissions from human activities have “likely” caused more extreme heat waves and storm surges, it is less sure about the link between man-made climate change and increased floods as river flood causes are complicated to begin with. It’s no secret, however; global carbon emissions rose a record amount last year.

The IPCC report states it is likely that the frequency of heavy precipitation will increase in the coming decades, and though the report doesn’t concretely link man-made climate change with increased floods, I would bet heavier precipitation would lead to increased flooding, especially in low lying areas and areas built in floodplains. Furthermore, a recent study in Nature found that the increased greenhouse gases from human actions are driving heavier rainfall patterns in the high latitudes and tropical regions. Though tropical cyclones may hold steady or even decrease in their frequency, those that do form are likely to be more virulent and mixed with rising sea levels could make for disastrous consequences for low lying island states.

Perhaps the biggest fear with worsening climate predictions might undoubtedly be droughts. With a steadily growing population to feed, 7 billion to be exact, food scarcity might become problematic…to say the least. And with the population expected to rise to 9 billion by 2050, flooding might look trivial compared to millions of starving people.

Of course, critics and skeptics question the IPCC models used to make climate change predictions. But the proof is in the pudding: from Hurricane Katrina, to historic droughts in Moscow and Texas, to rising sea levels swallowing islands whole, I say it doesn’t matter what the skeptics crow. We can see these changes with our naked eyes.

Since anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions aren’t going to disappear overnight, and these climate changes are going to rage along despite our deepest hopes, what can be done?

A preemptive strike is probably our best bet at this time: spending time and money taking action now, instead of waiting til the damage is done. Beef up defenses in vulnerable areas–early warning systems, better land use planning, protecting and restoring buffer areas (like wetlands and marshes), weather proofing infrastructure–and continue taking measurable steps to reducing anthropogenic greenhouse gases.

It would be foolish not to anticipate and act in accordance with the changes we know are coming. Instead of criticizing the IPCC, we should be thankful we even have the opportunity to plan defensive, and preventative strategies, lest we incur worldwide devastation.

Hope Sign