The rebound delusion

Lately it’s become fashionable to claim that energy efficiency is useless, because the rebound effect will always eat it up. This is actually hogwash, especially in the short term. James Barrett has a nice critique of the super-rebound position at RCE. Some excerpts:

To be clear, the rebound effect is real. The theory behind it is sound: Lower the cost of anything and people will use more of it, including the cost of running energy consuming equipment. But as with many economic ideas that are sound theory (like the idea that you can raise government revenues by cutting tax rates), the trick is in knowing how far to take them in reality. (Cutting tax rates from 100% to 50% would certainly raise revenues. Cutting them from 50% to 0% would just as surely lower them.)

The problem with knowing how far to take things like this is that unlike real scientists who can run experiments in a controlled laboratory environment, economists usually have to rely on what we can observe in the real world. Unfortunately, the real world is complicated and trying to disentangle everything that’s going on is very difficult.

Owen cleverly avoids this problem by not trying to disentangle anything.

One supposed example of the Jevons paradox that he points to in the article is air conditioning. Citing a conversation with Stan Cox, author of Losing Our Cool, Owen notes that between 1993 and 2005, air conditioners in the U.S. increased in efficiency by 28%, but by 2005, homes with air conditioning increased their consumption of energy for their air conditioners by 37%.

Accounting only for the increased income over the timeframe and fixing Owen’s mistake of assuming that every air conditioner in service is new, a few rough calculations point to an increase in energy use for air conditioning of about 30% from 1993 to 2005, despite the gains in efficiency. Taking into account the larger size of new homes and the shift from room to central air units could easily account for the rest.

All of the increase in energy consumption for air conditioning is easily explained by factors completely unrelated to increases in energy efficiency. All of these things would have happened anyway. Without the increases in efficiency, energy consumption would have been much higher.

It’s easy to be sucked in by stories like the ones Owen tells. The rebound effect is real and it makes sense. Owen’s anecdotes reinforce that common sense. But it’s not enough to observe that energy use has gone up despite efficiency gains and conclude that the rebound effect makes efficiency efforts a waste of time, as Owen implies. As our per capita income increases, we’ll end up buying more of lots of things, maybe even energy. The question is how much higher would it have been otherwise.

Why is the rebound effect suddenly popular? Because an overwhelming rebound effect is needed to make sense of proposals to give up on near-term emissions prices and invest in technology, praying for a clean-energy-supply miracle in a few decades.

As Barrett points out, the notion that energy efficiency increases energy use is an exaggeration of the rebound effect. For efficiency to increase use, energy consumption has to be elastic (e<-1). I don’t remember ever seeing an economic study that came to that conclusion. In a production function, such values aren’t physically plausible, because they imply zero energy consumption at a finite energy price.

Therefore, the notion that pursuing energy efficiency makes the climate situation worse is a fabrication. Doubly so, because of an accounting sleight-of-hand. Consider two extremes:

  1. no rebound effects (elasticity ~ 0): efficiency policies work, because they reduce energy use and its associated negative social externalities.
  2. big rebound effects (elasticity < -1): efficiency policies increase energy use, but they do so because there’s a huge private benefit from the increase in mobility or illumination or whatever private purpose the energy is put to.

The super-rebound crowd pooh-poohs #1 and conveniently ignores the welfare outcome of #2, accounting only for the negative side effects.

If rebound effects are modest, as they surely are, it makes much more sense to guide R&D and deployment for both energy supply and demand with a current price signal on emissions. That way, firms make distributed decisions about where to invest, rather than the government picking winners, and appropriate tradeoffs between conservation and clean supply are possible. The price signal can be adapted to meet environmental constraints in the face of rising income. Progress starts now, rather than after decades of waiting for the discover->apply->deploy->embody pipeline.

If the public isn’t ready for it, that doesn’t mean analysts should bargain against their own good sense by recommending things that might be popular, but are unlikely to work. That’s like a doctor advising a smoker to give to cancer research, without mentioning that he really ought to quit.

Update: there’s an excellent followup at RCE.

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