While making investments to reduce emissions benefits the entire economy, there is a risk of a “rebound effect” in the residential sector, where individuals use more energy than they did before since it is cleaner and cheaper.
Experts have emphasized the necessity of changing our energy system to address the climate problem, from making buildings and household items more energy efficient to shifting to renewable energy sources. However, how such changes interact with human energy use—and human nature—will have an impact on how successful they are. A recent study emphasizes the relevance of how sustainable advancements may unintentionally affect our behaviors and lives, possibly damaging them.
Researchers at the University of Utah set out to investigate two major climate change solutions: increasing energy efficiency and switching to renewables, two of the most frequent and widely implemented emissions-reduction measures. “I thought, ‘If the world believes these are the two greatest answers right now, why don’t we see which one is better?” says Lazarus Adua, main author of the research and assistant professor of sociology at the University of Utah.
Researchers compared each state’s CO2 emissions with their investment in those two options between 2009 and 2016, based on Department of Energy statistics. They used the American Council on an Energy-Efficient Economy for energy-efficiency investments, which scores states based on their policy initiatives for improving efficiency in buildings and homes, as well as each state’s economic output per unit of energy consumed (found by dividing a state’s economic output by its energy input) to determine how efficient the state’s GDP is overall. They assessed how percent of each state’s total energy consumption comes from renewable sources for renewable investments.
His team looked examined each solution’s impact across four sectors: residential, commercial, industrial, and transportation, with the objective of determining which solution was linked with the greatest reduction in emissions. The good news is that both strategies work: switching to renewables and improving energy efficiency were both linked to lower CO2 emissions across all sectors studied, with no statistically significant difference between them.
According to the study, a 1% increase in economic production per unit of energy—which would make the entire state’s economy more energy efficient—would result in a 0.61 percent reduction in CO2 emissions. “They are more efficient if they consume less energy to create each output,” explains Adua. Switching to renewable energy had a broader impact. When looking at all industries, a 1% investment in renewables resulted in a.7% reduction in overall energy-related CO2 emissions.
When they looked at individual industries and more precise strategies, however, they were taken aback. The researchers discovered the opposite in the residential sector: a 1% increase in renewable energy was related with a 0.36 percent rise in CO2 emissions from energy use in the residential sector. Likewise, initiatives aimed at assisting customers in improving their own energy efficiency had little impact on emissions. “This legislation is about state governments collaborating with utilities to provide ‘energy-efficiency programs,’ and part of it is looking at ways to persuade homes and buildings to reduce their energy usage,” Adua explains.
Both of these remedies were expected to cut emissions, but they didn’t, which prompted Adua to believe that a phenomena known as the “rebound effect” was at work. “It’s not that those policies weren’t properly operating as they should have.” It really indicates that they may have worked so effectively that consumption has increased as a result,” he explains. “Human conduct is what drives the rebounding.”
The rebound effect, which states that when things get more efficient, individuals tend to utilize them more, outweighing the benefits of efficiency, has been demonstrated several times in the context of various environmental behaviors. According to one research, fuel-efficient vehicles encourage us to drive more. The first evidence comes from 1865, when an English economist described how improvements in steam-energy efficiency boosted rather than decreased coal usage in the United Kingdom. Carbon offsets are an example of this, where their use has unwittingly given people or businesses permission to pollute more. Outside of the surroundings, Adua suggests that if you go to the gym and then treat yourself to dessert, you may have consumed more calories than you burnt off during your workout.
If someone sees their energy bills drop because their energy is now generated from renewable sources or their homes are more energy efficient, they may unintentionally begin to use more energy, such as leaving lights on or running appliances more frequently, because they know those things are being powered in a (more) environmentally friendly manner. When individuals experience the benefits of these solutions up close, the rebound effect appears to occur. Their actions tend to be the polar opposite, with them consuming even more energy now that they are aware that their homes are powered by renewables.
According to Adua, this isn’t a justification to abandon these measures. However, it serves as a warning that policymakers must consider ways to prevent the same rebound effect when introducing programs like the Biden Administration’s initiative to remodel houses to be more energy efficient. “It isn’t the policy that isn’t working; it is the policy that isn’t functioning.” It’s not that efficiency isn’t functioning. It’s the way human actions interact with things in general,” Adua adds. “Even if these things work, we may need to think about lifestyle [changes] as well.”