From rebound to backfire: Tierney column examines limits to use of energy efficiency policy to pursue energy conservation

Michael Giberson

John Tierney’s column, “When Energy Efficiency Sullies the Environment,” in the New York Times examines the rebound effect and some of the broader consequences of trying to promote conservation through policies inducing energy efficiency.

Some of the biggest rebound effects occur when new economic activity results from energy-efficient technologies that reduce the cost of making products like steel or generating electricity. In some cases, the overall result can be what’s called “backfire”: more energy use than would have occurred without the improved efficiency.

Another term for backfire is the Jevons Paradox, named after a 19th-century British economist who observed that while the steam engine extracted energy more efficiently from coal, it also stimulated so much economic growth that coal consumption increased. That paradox was mostly ignored by modern environmentalists, who have argued that rebound effects are much smaller today.

But economists keep finding contrary evidence. When Britain’s UK Energy Research Center reviewed more than 500 studies on the subject, it rejected the assumption that rebound effects were small enough to be disregarded. The author of the 2007 report, Steve Sorrell, noted that these effects could, in some circumstances, “potentially increase energy consumption in the long term.”

A similar conclusion comes from a survey of the literature published last month by the Breakthrough Institute, an American research group that studies ways to slow global warming. Its authors, Jesse Jenkins, Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger, warn that “rebound effects are real and significant,” and could sometimes erode all the expected reductions in emissions. (Links in source.)

Tierney also mentions the research on the potential rebound effect associated with solid-state lighting, mentioned here last year.

His final paragraph is on target: with or without public policy pushing us along, we will continue to use energy more efficiently – just don’t expect it to lead to less energy consumption overall.

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One thought on “From rebound to backfire: Tierney column examines limits to use of energy efficiency policy to pursue energy conservation

  1. The reason to pursue energy efficiency is not just to use less energy… it also helps us cope better with higher energy prices. Higher prices are what lead us to use less energy, and energy efficiency allows that to happen without as much negative economic impact.

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