The Future

Even climate do-gooders end up hurting the environment

The ‘environmental rebound effect’ probably negates any green-thinking choice you make.
The Future

Even climate do-gooders end up hurting the environment

The ‘environmental rebound effect’ probably negates any green-thinking choice you make.

In August, a study was published in the American Association for the Advancement of Science called “The Paradox of Irrigation Efficiency.” The report’s authors found fault in the belief held by governments and water technology companies that by simply installing irrigation efficiency (IE) systems — technologies that cut down on the amount of water wasted on a farmer’s field — there would be greater water conservation. “Substantial scientific evidence has long shown that increased IE rarely delivers the presumed public-good benefits of increased water availability,” the study went.

The paradox described here wasn’t new. What was new, however, was the demand made by the authors for public officials to better understand how “the incentives and behavior of irrigators” might be subverting the technology’s efficacy. “There has been surprisingly limited policy implemented to address incentives,” Quentin Grafton, one of the report’s authors, told me over the phone. “In Australia we’ve spent $4 billion in the Murray-Darling basin (the Australian equivalent of the American breadbasket, the region in the U.S. where most grains are grown) to ensure proper irrigation systems are set up. But there was no corresponding water audit done to see how the farmers were using the equipment.”

If they did, they would see the problem isn’t that the irrigation efficiency technology wasn’t working. Rather, it was working too well.

The wealth of an irrigator is directly attributable to water; their incentive is to use as much water as possible. So, when they received subsidies to increase their irrigation efficiency, they naturally saw it as an opportunity to increase yields and, at times, use even more water than before. The irrigation efficiency technology changed the pattern of consumption, not the level.

This sort of efficient techno-backfire is not unique to the water sector. It’s a phenomenon called the “rebound effect” or, when factoring the environmental effects throughout a product’s lifecycle, the “environmental rebound effect.”

Looking at how behavioral and economic demand responds to more efficient systems of operation, a rebound effect occurs when people respond to increased efficiency by being less efficient, such as driving more frequently after buying a hybrid.

The rebound effect was first described in the British economist William Stanley Jevons’s 1865 book The Coal Question. Jevons disputed the widely held idea in 1860s Great Britain that more efficient coal engines would lessen the nation’s demand for coal: “It is wholly a confusion of ideas to suppose that the economical use of fuel is equivalent to a diminished consumption. The very contrary is the truth,” he wrote. The problem, Jevon explained, was laid out in economic theory: As the price of a good decreases, demand for it increases.

An environmental rebound effect occurs when people respond to increased efficiency by being less efficient, such as driving more frequently after buying a hybrid.

Jevon’s ideas were progressively broadened into what has become known as the environmental rebound effect. An environmental rebound is measured in three different ways: direct, indirect, and economy-wide. Take, for example, some suggestions for energy conservation put forth by by CNN after the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released their most-recent report, which said that the world is “nowhere near on track” to stave off catastrophic levels of global warming: “Eat less meat (about 30 percent), swap your car or plane ride for a bus or train, and use a smart thermostat in your home.”

Let’s dissect that third suggestion in consideration of the environmental rebound effect. As the theory goes, when a more efficient thermostat is installed (and used in the correct, sustainable manner) a direct rebound effect would be when that thermostat is kept operational all day instead of someone simply turning their cooling and heating system on when they got home and off when they left it.

An indirect rebound effect would be if the money someone saved using a smart thermostat was spent on more carbon-intensive activities. Since those that can afford to purchase a smart thermostat are usually affluent, researchers find that the saved money is usually spent on travel (an activity, of course, with a very large carbon footprint).

Now assume those smart thermostats are installed in both homes and offices (upon the latter of which they will have a measurable impact on energy used). But if those businesses and homes decide to use the saved capital to raise wages or put that money back into the economy in another way; then the economy will grow and expenditure on goods and services will rise, further hurting the environment.

Since those that can afford to purchase, say, a smart thermostat are usually affluent, researchers find that the saved money is usually spent on travel — an activity with a very large carbon footprint.

Researchers vary on the extent to which the rebound effect will reverse environmental benefits (Cameron K. Murray, a Senior Economist at The Australian Institute, has found that rebound effects will cause environmental benefits to be overstated by 20 percent for reduced vehicle use and 7 percent for electricity use; large percentages when measuring ecological effects). But most, if not, all agree that the rebound effect occurs and is significant: “All [academics] play a conservative game,” Alcott Blake, who researches the effect, wrote to me in an email. “But all are actually convinced rebound is [significant].”

The complication is not in the technology itself but, as researchers noted in The Paradox of Irrigation Efficiency, in the behavioral system in which it operates. A more efficient stove, for example, is simply more efficient. But it is how the stove-user reacts to those efficiency gains that creates the rebound.

For governments dealing with a water crisis, for example, analyzing reactions after the fact is complicated undergoing. They might see that crop irrigation accounts for 70 percent of global water extractions, and there are new technologies that guarantee an efficient use of water. So, they spend billions of dollars subsidizing high-tech solutions like drip irrigation, sprinklers, and laser-leveling fields to ensure the highest amount of crops grown per drop of water consumed, or the highest “crop per drop.”

“It is commonly assumed that high rates of adoption of win-win ‘green’ consumption choices will significantly reduce GHG emissions,” Murray wrote in the March 2013 issue of Energy Policy. “However, this assumption is typically made using incomplete engineering-type analysis, where many little actions are expected to add up to significant economy wide changes.”

Most economists and efficiency experts agree that environmental rebound effects can be countered simply by reducing expenditures. But due to the limitations imposed upon us by our economic system, such is easier said than done. Most economic models are predicated upon relatively short-term growth projections that cannot easily capture climate variations modeled 100 years into the future. And, unlike the slow but devastating ecological shifts cause by climate change, if economic growth slows, communities quickly crumble.

Take California. The California Water Resource Control Board is attempting to pass a bill to cap the amount of water that is removed from the state’s rivers and water basins, creating a bitter divide between environmentalists and agribusiness. Yet these two well-staffed groups aren’t what weigh heavy on the minds of the water board’s members. “The most challenging argument we have had against this legislation is that we are abandoning communities,” Max Gomberg, the board’s Climate and Conservation Manager, told me over the phone. “And they [members of those communities] are hard to ignore. If we cap their water availability, they will grow fewer crops, have fewer jobs, drive up unemployment. And the communities these bills are set to affect are overwhelming poor and people of color.”

For prominent business leaders like Michael Bloomberg and former Pepsi Chairwoman Indra Nooyi, hope might reside in a concept called “eco-economic decoupling.” This is when the economy can grow without corresponding environmental degradation; if possible, it would prevent rebound effects. But for decoupling to realistically work, researchers say that we would have to go beyond simply decarbonizing the energy system. Caps on economy-wide consumption would be required to lower global demand to a sustainable level.

A more efficient stove is simply more efficient. But it is how the stove-user reacts to those efficiency gains that creates the rebound.

This could be done using a robust system of carbon taxation, in which it would become economically ruinous to pollute or consume over a specified level. This presents a paradox of its own: the funds raised from such a tax couldn’t be put back into the economy, thereby being put toward greater consumption.

And even if we had a relatively progressive government in place to help push such a consumption tax, it could still backfire (not to mention how difficult it is to muscle through such legislation in the first place).

For example: Switzerland, the relatively socialist bastion unmarred by climate-change political strife, is having trouble designing such a bill. “To sell these policy packages to some conservative politicians you always must mention the positive impacts on industry,” Patrick Hofstetter, the Head of Climate and Energy Policy for the World Wildlife Fund Switzerland, told me over the phone. “But these same positive impacts are prone to creating rebound effects. And a big concern with these bills is we will just shift production to another, less-polluting sector and build new, efficient things atop the old, less efficient things.”

Hofstetter sees promise in the growing “simple living” movement, the adherents of which volunteer to slow their consumption and take satisfaction from less. Many push to bring back local methods of production and consumption, such as decentralizing the food economy and, when possible, growing more food locally. “We would then get an almost immediate feedback on how our consumption is changing the environment,” Hofstetter said. “It is due to this lost feedback that allows us to generate such large consumer societies. We may need to look into alternative economic models to relieve the huge pressure growing in our systems.”

Such ideals are in step with a group of scientists at the Climate and Land Use Alliance, a global coalition headquartered in San Francisco. In a statement, the group asked the IPCC why its report was promoting carbon-capture technologies still under development as the way to save our planet. “While high-tech carbon dioxide removal solutions are under development, the ‘natural technology’ of forests is currently the only proven means of removing and storing atmospheric CO2 at a scale that can meaningfully contribute to achieving carbon balance,” the group wrote.

Perhaps unaware of the logical web in which it had tangled itself, the group ended its statement by saying that trees underpinned economic growth — but only after noting that they were also essential for our survival.

Mike Disabato is a writer in New York. He last wrote for The Outline about the world’s foreboding over-reliance on cement.