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Sierra Daily

Jan 23, 2013

Energy efficiency? Why bother?

Newcastle coal mine 1855You buy efficient LED bulbs and that just encourages you to leave the lights on longer, negating the environmental benefits. You buy a hybrid car and its high mpg just encourages you to drive more miles, again negating your do-good intentions. At least that’s the thinking of those who subscribe to the “rebound” theory and its extreme corollary, “backfire” (in which all efficiency gains are wiped out), in their criticisms of energy-efficiency efforts from a carbon tax to support for plug-in cars to efficiency standards for appliances.

The only problem is that any so-called rebound effect is relatively insignificant. “If a technology is cheaper to run, people may use it more. If they don’t, they can use their savings to buy other things that required energy to make. But evidence points to these effects being small — too small to erase energy savings from energy efficiency standards, for example,” said David Rapson, assistant professor of economics at the University of California, Davis. Rapson co-authored “The Rebound Effect Is Overplayed,” an article published today in Nature.

The concept that energy use rises as industry becomes more efficient because people will turn around and produce and consume more goods stems from “The Coal Question,” an 1865 analysis by William Stanley Jevons. The pre-oil-era economist was concerned about what would happen to Britain’s economy when the UK hit “peak coal,” which it did in 1913. (The pessimistic Jevons “did not foresee both the adaptation of the British economy in reaching higher overall efficiency in a high energy price environment, and the eventual large scale introduction of petroleum.”)

But the “Jevons paradox” (which might be referred to as the “Why bother? paradox”) lives on. For their part, Rapson and his co-authors, Kenneth Gillingham and Matthew J. Kotchen from the Yale University School of Forestry and Environmental Studies and Gernot Wagner of the Environmental Defense Fund, found that in the modern economy, the rebound effect is not supported empirically. “Even though increased efficiency may prompt changes in behavior, energy is still saved overall,” said Rapson. “Energy efficiency policies should therefore continue to be considered as a way to address greenhouse gas emissions.”

Illustration of Newcastle coal miners in 1855 by iStock/whitemay

HS_ReedMcManusReed McManus is a senior editor at Sierra. He has worked on the magazine since Ronald Reagan’s second term. For inspiration, he turns to cartoonist R. Crumb’s Mr. Natural, who famously noted: “Twas ever thus.”

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