John Tierney: The Man
“Efficiency advocates try to distract attention from the rebound effect by saying that nobody will vacuum more because their vacuum cleaner is more efficient,” Mr. Shellenberger said. “But this misses the picture at the macro and global level, particularly when you consider all the energy that is used in manufacturing products and producing usable energy like electricity and gasoline from coal and oil. When you increase the efficiency of a steel plant in China, you’ll likely see more steel production and thus more energy consumption.”
Consider what’s happened with lighting over the past three centuries. As people have switched from candles to oil-powered lamps to incandescent bulbs and beyond, the amount of energy needed to produce a unit of light has plummeted. Yet people have found so many new places to light that today we spend the same proportion of our income on light as our much poorer ancestors did in 1700, according to an analysis published last year in The Journal of Physics by researchers led by Jeff Tsao of Sandia National Laboratories.
“The implications of this research are important for those who care about global warming,” said Harry Saunders, a co-author of the article. “Many have come to believe that new, highly-efficient solid-state lighting — generally LED technology, like that used on the displays of stereo consoles, microwaves and digital clocks — will result in reduced energy consumption. We find the opposite is true.”
These new lights, though, produce lots of other benefits, just as many other improvements in energy efficiency contribute to overall welfare by lowering costs and spurring economic growth. In the long run, that economic growth may spur innovative new technologies for reducing greenhouse emissions and lowering levels of carbon dioxide.
But if your immediate goal is to reduce greenhouse emissions, then it seems risky to count on reaching it by improving energy efficiency. To economists worried about rebound effects, it makes more sense to look for new carbon-free sources of energy, or to impose a direct penalty for emissions, like a tax on energy generated from fossil fuels. Whereas people respond to more fuel-efficient cars by driving more and buying other products, they respond to a gasoline tax simply by driving less.
A visible tax, of course, is not popular, which is one reason that politicians prefer to stress energy efficiency. The costs and other trade-offs of energy efficiency are often conveniently hidden from view, and the prospect of using less energy appeals to the thrifty instincts of consumers as well as to the moral sensibilities of environmentalists.
(Nod to Anonyman and his candy-ass Prius)