The Rebound Effect Rebounds in a New York Times Op-Ed

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The Rebound Effect Rebounds in a New York Times Op-Ed

Gita Subramony for Zondits, October 12, 2014

Zondits has previously written on the rebound effect and how it has been used as an argument, albeit a flawed one, against energy efficiency. A few years ago David Owen published a controversial piece in The New Yorker arguing that efficiency would likely result in greater energy usage (not less) because it will become cheaper for us to use more. Once again, the rebound is making an appearance in a notable publication – this time The New York Times.

Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus recently published “The Problem with Energy Efficiency” in the New York Times opinion column. They use LEDs, a recent news item, as an example of how the rebound effect works. They argue that because LED technology is becoming more prevalent and cheaper, the demand for lighting will increase so much that it will outweigh any efficiency gains caused by using LED technology instead of incandescent light bulbs or other less efficient technologies. Shellenberger and Nordhaus point to China, India, and Nigeria as the prime sites for the rebound effect to occur – the demand for lighting in those countries, they argue, will increase so much that any gains in efficiency through technology will be wiped out. The basis for their argument is the Jevons Paradox, an economic theory identified by William Stanley Jevons based on his observations that more-efficient coal-fired steam engines actually spurred greater energy usage during the Industrial Revolution.

However, Jevons Paradox is not that straightforward. Both articles put efficiency at the root of increased energy usage, but this is argument is misleading and likely confuses correlation and causation. The Rocky Mountain Institute published an article debunking David Owen’s usage of Jevons Paradox and suggesting that the real driver of increased energy usage was not more efficient products, but rather greater affluence.

This same line of reasoning can be applied to the Shellenberger and Nordhaus New York Times piece. It might be true that places like India and China will see more demand for lighting, thereby increasing overall and per-capita energy consumption. Increases in wealth, combined with cheaper technologies and the drive to improve quality of life, might bring more users onto the grid. However, now these users can opt for LEDs over incandescents, resulting in less of an increase in energy consumption than would have been seen otherwise. In a developed nation such as the USA, we are probably already using all the lighting we need. Take my office space, for example: Currently, we have T8 fluorescent fixtures and there is plenty of light for all of us to comfortably work. Just because we have the option to install LEDs that consume less energy per bulb does not mean that we will then want to install so many new fixtures that we’ll erase the efficiency gains resulting from the new technology – I’d prefer not to have to wear sunglasses inside. These examples suggest that the rebound effect is not quite as straightforward as suggested.

Shellenberger and Nordhaus do point to the non-energy benefits of efficient technology – millions around the world will be able to use cheaper LEDs to increase their living standards. What’s troubling about this piece on the rebound effect is that it is cast as a problem with energy efficiency. If rebound is so problematic, then do the authors suggest by extension that we should not engage in creating more efficient technologies or in developing innovative ways to reduce our energy consumption without diminishing quality of life? While that’s likely not the message that Shellenberger and Nordhaus intend to impart, casual New York Times readers might come away with a slightly warped view of efficiency. The op-ed does advocate for switching to cleaner sources of energy as a climate change mitigation tactic. In fact, John Kerry, US Secretary of State, and Philip Hammond, Foreign Secretary of the UK, published an opinion piece in The Boston Globe the day after the New York Times article appeared, touting the value of clean energy policies for global job creation and worldwide climate change mitigation. Efficiency should not be ignored; both clean energy and energy efficiency will be essential pieces in the climate change adaptation and mitigation puzzle.