Paraphrasing Newton, every action has a reaction. This week’s blog is on the phenomenon of the Rebound. And no, we are not talking about your love life or a basketball move…
The idea of the Rebound Effect has been tossed around social science circles since the 19th century. In life cycle assessment we look at the net consequential impacts of a decision which would include the rebound effect and the unpleasantly named ‘leakage’ (savings that leak back out). But essentially these two terms examine the same phenomena. The Rebound Effect looks more holistically at a technological advancement, and the actual ramifications of the technology and its energy savings.
A report by the European Union defines the rebound effect as being:
“…is increases in consumption due to environmental efficiency interventions that can occur through a price reduction (i.e. an efficient product being cheaper and hence more is consumed) or other behavioural responses. This encompasses both price induced and mental /psychological rebound effects. The mental rebound effect is where a feel good perception of being “green” encourages increased consumption for certain products where “green” or lower impact options are readily available”. 
For instance, a previous blog looked at the benefits of using biofuels as an energy-efficient and environmentally-friendly fuel alternative for transport. As was discussed, however, there are side effects of a larger demand for biofuel production and the overall energy efficiency and general benefit of using biofuels isn’t as great as (and in some cases is perhaps even worse) than using fossil fuels.
The idea of looking at the potential consequences of an action when doing a life cycle assessment is to embrace foresight in decision making and examine the potential environmental impacts associated with the implementation of a particular technology. The example of the energy-efficient lightbulb is a classic that has been empirically proven:
“For instance when we replace a 75W incandescent bulb with an 18W compact fluorescent bulb – a reduction in (wattage) power of about 75% – we could expect over time a 75% energy saving. However, this seldom happens. Many consumers, realising that the light now costs less to run, are less concerned about switching it off, indeed they may leave it on all night, for example for increased safety or security. Thus they ‘take back’ some of the energy savings in the form of higher levels of energy service (more hours of light)”. 
This phenomenon can be experienced in many modern uses of energy. Cars are now more efficient than they once were, but we also drive our cars more often and further than we used to, resulting in higher energy use and carbon emissions. Refrigerators, air travel and home heating systems all give examples of energy efficiencies resulting in increased use.
The Rebound Effect examines how consumer behaviour changes when the goods and services we use become more efficient. When something is cheaper to use, it seems we are inclined to use it more, thereby negating the energy efficiencies discovered by the technological advancement.
So what does this mean for climate change? I’m sure you have heard the argument that we can save ourselves and our planet with technology. The answer, some would have us believe, is not to consume less, but to consume green. Efficiency through technological advancement is cited by many as the answer to curbing global warming. It is part of the solution, I would agree, but only part.
There are proponents who would argue consumerism itself is part of the problem. Our capitalist imperative to continually grow must change if we are to live within a finite world. Check out Tim Jackson’s book Prosperity Without Growth for an example of how we might achieve this (one day).
In part, curbing global warming must also be about changing social norms. For example, studies out of the UK have shown that those with the greenest lifestyles often negate all of their efforts by using air travel more frequently:
“Green living is largely something of a myth. There is this middle class environmentalism where being green is part of the desired image. But another part of the desired image is to fly off skiing twice a year. And the carbon savings they make by not driving their kids to school will be obliterated by the pollution from their flights.”
In addition, travelling abroad is cited as a reward by some people for all of the hard work performed greening their lifestyles at home. This study found that people who recycled more felt less guilty about frequent air travel, pointing to the fact that we have the habit of deceiving ourselves depending on the context.
So in short, whilst technological advancement is an imperative part of the solution to curbing the warming of our planet, we must also be critical of the ramifications of each technology. Indeed, a more holistic approach to all things environmental is called for if we are truly to make a change to our world for the better.
When we talk about sustainability what we are actually trying to achieve is net environmental benefits, not just shifting or mitigating environmental impacts from one area to another. This requires more detailed explorations of the consequences of decision making and also the willingness to think about the goods and services system that they participate in before they are even created.
I leave you today with a video clip that sheds some light on the “TV Pick Up” phenomena in the UK… a side effect of a society who loves to drink tea after watching their favorite TV episode. Enjoy!
 Herring, H. & Roy, R. (2007) “Technological innovation, energy efficient design and the rebound effect”, Technovation, No. 27, pp. 194-203.
Maxwell. M and McAndrew. L (2011) Addressing the Rebound Effect, European Commission DG http://ec.europa.eu/environment/eussd/pdf/rebound_effect_report.pdf
- U.S. homes getting more efficient – but still using more energy (washingtonpost.com)
- The Promise and the Perils of Efficiency (cleanweb.org.uk)
- How We Use Energy: Then And Now (npr.org)
- Rebound effects could Undermine Carbon Savings (Guardian.co.uk)