9 February 2010

Don't Get Caught on the Rebound

It is generally assumed that efficiency of resource use will lead to a lower level of environmental impact, most commonly in the case of energy efficiency which is suggested as a major policy response to the problem of climate change. However, this is an assumption that fails to take into account the human factor and the range of possible responses that people might make to higher efficiency levels. An example of an unexpected response is the ‘rebound effect’, which means that when energy efficiency is increased, the response may be to use more of the good or service that is now produced more efficiently.

For example, is a home is better insulated, the people who live there may choose to enjoy warmer surroundings, rather than using their central heating less, thus some of the efficiency will not translate into energy savings. These rebound effects are illustrated in the figure, which shows the intricate relationship between product design, improvements in design processes, economic structure and social responses that are all involved in productive activity. Reducing the energy required to produce any particular good will lead to a fall in its price, which may then stimulate further demand, increasing the sales of that product.

This system of growth in the productive economy can be conceived as a reinforcing feedback cycle, with technological advance being one of the factors that drives economic growth (and hence resource and energy demand), rather than reducing demand and promoting conservation of energy and resources.

Rebound effects point to the difficulty of devising policies to tackle environmental problems. They also indicate that the major changes that need to occur as we move towards a lower-carbon economy will be in terms of a social and cultural paradigm shift rather than a technological change. So having citizens who appreciate the depth of the environmental crisis and are engaged in changing their lifestyle to contribute to its solution is more important than paying scientists to devise gadgets or even to redesign production systems.

You can find out much more about these effects in a useful book called Energy Efffiency and Sustainable Consumption.


  1. Very informative blog and great (if distressing at times!) food for thought. Other examples of the rebound effect I've seen/ heard: "I do lots of recycling so I deserve a weekend off to Spain" or people buying more power hungry gadgets with the money first saved on the electricity bill when insulating (but will ultimately end up higher due to gadgets power use...a bit like going on a diet: regularly ending up weighing more than before you started the diet...). My 2p. In peace, Rianne

  2. One vital tool in getting the critical mass of the populace to take an interest in understanding the scale of the changes they personally need to be involved in making is Real Information. Who produces this information and how it is paid for so that it is distributed via popular media and kept unbiased is the big unanswered question. We are so used to having to mentally filter out most of the hyped marketing and political spin blabber being sent at us and so are so distrustful of these sources of "information" (or progaganda) its difficult for us to trust any source. Yet the task ahead cannot be greater than it is and the messages on how to combat its effects are already overdue.
    Rebound effects are natures way of humans using a new advantage to meet their previously unattainable desires despite, in this case, positive changes being made possible. I think most of this ignorance is because we have no real idea of how thin the crust that we all live on really is and that like a floating ice sheet its thinning fast. Again real information is needed and the self interested claptrap spitting media brigade need to be the ones who are ignored for a change. Ahhh a pig just flew past my window .........