Saturday, 6 November 2010

Perhaps we should try what works

By Blake Alcott, School of Earth and Environment, University of Leeds

The jury is still out on the size of ‘economy-wide’, ‘macro’ or ‘total’ rebound. UKERC and 4CMR for instance hover in the range of 40-52%, albeit with caveats concerning trade effects, bunker fuels and other grave difficulties of definition and methodology. Some still say rebound is insignificant, but they usually mean only ‘direct’ rebound (car-driving, lighting, white goods) and underestimate indirect effects. Still others hold that from the environmental point of view efficiency ‘backfires’, i.e. total rebound is greater than 100%: Even more energy gets used up than in a less efficient economy – dubbed a ‘paradox’ by Jevons in 1865.

Others including myself ignore this paradox and assert that rebound is about 100%, meaning: Whatever energy resources lie fallow after we achieve efficiency increases get immediately consumed for expanding previous or related activities, by the same or marginal consumers.[1] This safely assumes a lot of latent demand given world poverty, population growth and conspicuous consumption. It also assumes a supply function showing profits in the primary energy sector. The first line of evidence for this view is the broad historical picture showing efficiency and consumption rising in lock-step. It seems only isolated individuals take efficiency dividends as more leisure, i.e., as less production in the first place.

A second line of evidence is an analogy: More efficient consumption of labour inputs, starting with the industrial revolution, unleashed a pan-European debate whether this means labour saving, i.e. mass unemployment. In fact labour-efficiency ‘backfired’ hugely, and nobody any longer claims more than some resulting temporary unemployment. Thirdly, many direct rebounds do seem to be greater than 100% – perhaps lighting, pig iron or fertiliser production, or air travel.

In my opinion all this places an initial burden of proof on the position that rebound is significantly lower than 100%. Instead of asking ‘Where’s the rebound?’ we can ask ‘Where are the savings?’

All rebound positions rely heavily on theory.