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Experts Articles

Rebound Effects

The report by the International Energy Agency stating that Greenhouse Gas emissions have increased at a record rate last year would not have come as a surprise to many people.

It is understood that reducing the energy use in urban domestic households is a key area to tackle climate change. Urbanization has become an integral part of the socio economic growth of India and the population growth is much faster in cities due to both higher natural increases and migration. But, the Indian government do not seem to be catching up with the idea of reducing energy-consumption in urban households by bringing awareness about energy-saving through simple lifestyle changes. Most of the urban households do not have recycling facilities yet and programs like the labelling of appliances have only increased their use.

William Stanley JevonsCarbon-saving household activities are seldom as simple as they seem. A driver, who replaces his petrol car with an electric car, might drive longer distances taking advantage of the reduced fuel prices and might actually emit more carbon. Worse still are the carbon-saving methods that actually increase the carbon emissions and backfire completely - the money saved through using an energy-efficient car might be used for an additional exotic holiday in the year and the low-carbon lifestyle would have backfired completely.

The issue is that making one specific change opens up options for other changes that might very well increase the carbon emitted, thus creating, what is called the, a “Rebound Effect”. William Stanley Jevons was the first one to propose the “Rebound Effect” in 1865. He argued that increasing the efficiency of steam turbines would increase, rather than decrease, the overall consumption of coal. As the cost of energy goes down, he said, people would be more likely to use steam turbines more often. The ills of “rebound effects” especially in climate change mitigation measures have to be thought about very carefully.

In India, we are still in the formative years of making lifestyle choices in urban households and this provides us with an opportunity to steer clear of an energy-intensive lifestyle. We need to learn from the mistakes of the developed world, where the governments focused on specific behavioural changes while other actions undid the carbon saved. Dr. Angela Druckman from the centre of environmental strategy at the University of Surrey found that, in UK, only about two-thirds of the calculated carbon reductions are likely to be achieved for typical household actions. Usually the money saved on the weekly food bill by reducing food waste is money available for going out for dinner at the exotic restaurant on the weekend.

It should be understood that this kind of a behavioural change cannot be brought about without a quality and a meaningful engagement from the people in the urban areas. Nudging people to adopt specific low-carbon ways exposes us to danger of them unknowingly increasing the carbon emissions in other areas of their lives.

The working paper on “Communicating climate change to mass public audiences” states that the government should focus on “engaging with people at a deeper level by focusing on their personal values and social identities, which impact on a range of behaviours.” It is easy to convince people to make a small specific change but to adopt a low-carbon lifestyle, they would need to think for themselves.

The rebound effects have to be clearly thought about even while designing and formulating policy for tackling climate change. In his study, Terry Barker, of the Cambridge Centre for Climate Change Mitigation Research, states that policy makers and negotiators usually only consider the direct rebound effects of energy efficiency, largely ignoring the indirect and economy-wide effects and thus over-estimate what certain policies will achieve and are a lot less effective at reducing energy use than expected. It is extremely essential that policy makers should give more attention to rebound effects and also focus on areas apart from simple energy-efficiency.

We have to understand the importance of integrating policy measures like carbon taxes or other price based mechanisms with energy efficiency. As my friend Arindam points out, it is also essential to generate more energy through renewable sources and combine it with energy efficiency measures to achieve maximum reduction.

Climate Change is a grave, deep-rooted problem that cannot be solved through simplistic ways and methods. It would require an integrated approach and a meaningful engagement of every individual in the society. Only through a consolidated effort would we be able to tackle this problem appropriately.

 

Karan Mangotra, Climate Change, TERRE

Karan Mangotra

Climate Change Leader,
TERRE