Energy Efficiency, the Rebound, and the Steady State Society

Horace Herring
The Open University
July 12, 1012

Paper for 2012 Green Economic Conference, Oxford

Failure of energy efficiency

It is a truth universally acknowledged by green campaigners that improving energy efficiency will, by reducing energy use, lower carbon emissions. Thus article of faith as been adopted by most European governments as the cheapest (and most poular) way to tackle global warming. Hence over the last 20 years there have been many programs to improve energy efficiency in our buildings, appliances and cars. But what if this was all a delusion, and that improving energy efficiency had little, if any, impact on national energy use?

Energy efficiency has in fact, failed to deliver its promised savings in reducing European (EU-15) energy consumption, which has increased by over 10% in the last two decades. Furthermore, it is in the very sectors where our efforts have been concentrated, that energy use has risen the most: that is the household, service and transport sectors. In the household sector, since 1993 (to 2008), both electricity and gas use has risen by over a quarter. Surprising, in road transport the growth is less, up about 12%, but aviation use has grown by over 70% giving an overall increase in transport use of 18% (EuroStats 2011). Of course, the reasons for these increases are complex, and include population growth, rising per capita income, technological changes such as greater use of IT, and greatly increased world trade and travel.

European Policies

Increased energy use would not be a problem for most people if it were not for the threat of ‘global warming’ and the adverse climate changes (expected to be) bought about by our increased emissions of carbon dioxide, from the burning of fossil fuels. Although the European Union takes this problem very seriously, and has set targets to reduce it, progress has been slow. In the last two decades greenhouse gas emissions are down by only 11% in the EU-15 countries (EuroStats 2010); although we did meet our 8% target by 2010 mainly due to the current recession. What is most worrying about this reduction so far, is that only about half the fall is due to cuts in carbon dioxide emissions (the major greenhouse gas). Europe has been most successful in cutting emissions of the minor gases (that constitute less than 20% of greenhouse gases), with methane emissions down by over a quarter, nitrous oxide by nearly a third, and halogens and fluorocarbons by over 90% (EuroStats 2010). These results for methane and nitrous oxide have come mostly from changes in the waste and agriculture sectors, and in industrial processes.

Thus Europe has made pitifully slow progress in cutting carbon dioxide emissions from our fossil-fuelled vehicles, appliances and buildings in the last 20 years, and has no hope of reaching its 20% target by 2020 unless there is a radical shift in thinking about energy consumption. The old simplistic idea that just improving energy efficiency will (under free market conditions) leads to lower energy consumption needs to be challenged. My talk argues that, due to the ‘rebound effect’, much (if not all) of the energy savings on a local level are lost at the national level.

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