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Rebound effect: The Breakthrough Institute’s attack on clean energy backfires

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Top energy experts debunk their false assertions and misleading statements about energy efficiency

Proponents of large energy-efficiency rebound effects fail to prove their case.

Advocates of the thesis that “rebound” effects will offset much, most, all, or more than all energy savings from increasing end-use efficiency””a thesis popularized by David Owen’s recent and controversial New Yorker article””were asked in an early-2011 email exchange to illustrate their proposed rebound mechanisms with a hypothetical numerical example. Jesse Jenkins from the Breakthrough Institute obliged them. Jim Sweeney (Stanford) and Amory Lovins (Rocky Mountain Institute) then pointed out specific apparent errors whose correction would reduce Jenkins’s calculated rebound by about 10-20-fold (to a few percent, consistent with their own estimates). Further, the macroeconomic effects that Jenkins and his fellow-advocates had claimed were very large turned out in his example to be very small. Yet neither Jenkins nor his co-proponents rebutted the Sweeney and Lovins critiques. Jenkins now wants to abandon rather than uphold his own example, and big-rebound proponents appear to have withdrawn from the conversation. They insist that their economic calculations prove they’re right, no further proof is required, and the effects they posit are too complex for a numerical example to reflect. This behavior invites the inference that they won’t defend their sweeping claims because they can’t, and that inference will strengthen so long as they fail to do so. The exchange upholds the strength of the scientific process in clarifying understanding and exposing error, although it remains to be seen whether this goal is shared equally by both sides of the conversation. Asked for comment, Lovins quoted Harvard biology professor E.O. Wilson: “Sometimes a c oncept is baffling, not because it is profound but because it is wrong.”

That’s the conclusion Jon Koomey says journalists might well draw from a for-the-record email conversation between The Breakthrough Institute and leading energy experts.  I repost his entire 8-page discussion below.  It makes for fascinating reading and reveals better than anything I’ve seen just how TBI operates.

Koomey, ever the scientist, even has an “abstract,” which reads:

An e-mail conversation about whether “rebound” effects that offset energy savings are big or small reached a critical stage when a numerical example meant to demonstrate big rebounds came under decisive technical criticism””and wasn’t defended.

Recently, the Breakthrough Institute launched a major attack on energy efficiency.  They used talking points that right-wing think tanks have pushed for years (see The intellectual bankruptcy of conservatism: Heritage even opposes energy efficiency).  This shouldn’t be terribly surprising to longtime followers of TBI.  After all, last year they partnered with a right-wing think tank, the American Enterprise Institute, to push right-wing energy myths and attack the most basic of clean energy policies, a clean energy standard.

This year, Breakthrough’s attacks on clean energy were used by the Republican National Committee as part of their overall attack on Obama’s clean energy agenda.   Again, not a big surprise.  TBI’s work is consistently cited by those who want to attack environmentalists and climate scientists, “George Will embraces the anti-environmentalism “” and anti-environment “” message of The Breakthrough Institute.”

Yes, I know, The Breakthrough Institute will insist it’s purely a coincidence that they are the darling of the anti-science, pro-pollution right-wing disinformers.  The fact that they push right wing myths and even partner with right-wing organizations to push those myths has nothing to do with it.  Nor does the fact that they spent the past two years dedicating the resources of their organization to help kill prospects for climate and clean energy action — and to spread disinformation about Obama, Gore, Congressional leaders, Waxman and Markey, leading climate scientists, Al Gore again, the entire environmental community and anyone else trying to end our status quo energy policies (see “Debunking Breakthrough Institute’s attacks on Obama, Gore, Waxman, top climate scientists, progressives, and environmentalists“).  Nor does the fact that they even attacked Rachel Carson, who died decades ago after helping launch the modern environmental movement!

The only reason I point this out is that the only reason the media pay any attention whatsoever to their endless shoddy analyses and misrepresentations and smears is that Breakthrough has tried to create the impression they are a progressive, environmental organization dedicated to promoting clean energy — so that when they launch their umpteenth attack on progressives and environmentalists and climate scientists and clean energy they can be seen as “contrarians.”  Stop the presses — here’s an environmental group saying environmentalists are doing the wrong thing.   No, please, stop the presses already.

Anyway, some in the media have started to see through this shtick.  For an excellent debunking by the media of a typically flawed TBI analysis attacking the clean energy bill, see Markey spokesman: “The Breakthrough Institute seems to believe, much as the Bush administration did, that technology will solve all, even without a market.”

After multiple debunkings in 2008 and 2009, I have mostly ignored the nonstop disinformation coming from TBI founders Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger, as well as TBI’s Jesse Jenkins, for as long as possible.

But the confusion they are attempting to spread on energy efficiency is just too much to ignore.  I have had the chance to work with many of the leading experts on energy efficiency since my time overseeing the DOE’s office of energy efficiency and renewable energy back in the mid-1990s.   Back in September, I asked Evan Mills, a leading scientist and efficiency expert at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, to debunk some directly related myths — see (Efficiency lives “” the rebound effect, not so much).  And in the coming weeks I will be doing more posts on the subject.

Today, however, we’re luck to have a detailed discussion by Jonathan Koomey, one of the world’s foremost authorities on energy efficiency.  Koomey, a longtime friend and colleague who worked as a researcher and scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory for more than two decades, is now a Consulting Professor at Stanford University.

For the record, I received the document and the link from an interested third party, not Koomey.

EVERYTHING THAT FOLLOWS IS BY JON KOOMEY

In the interests of space and readability, I’m not going to indent it.  Footnotes (#) are at the end.

LEARNING FROM AN EXAMPLE OF THE REBOUND EFFECT

by Jonathan Koomey
Consulting Professor, Stanford University

February 13, 2011

Abstract

An e-mail conversation about whether “rebound” effects that offset energy savings are big or small reached a critical stage when a numerical example meant to demonstrate big rebounds came under decisive technical criticism””and wasn’t defended.

Summary

In an effort to avoid misunderstandings about the complex phenomenon of rebound, I proposed to an email list of about 30 analysts and energy/environmental reporters that those supporting large rebound effects produce a simplified example, so we could dig into the buried assumptions that always afflict such analyses.

Jesse Jenkins (of the Breakthrough Institute) offered such an example, but failed to respond to substantive critiques of the assumptions behind that model that reduced the calculated rebound effect by factors of roughly 10 to 20.

Nevertheless, there was general agreement that the relevant research question should be “under what conditions is rebound a problem, and in those cases, how big is it?” Once this question is accepted, however, making blanket categorical statements like “energy efficiency never saves energy” (as blog posts on the Breakthrough Institute’s web site routinely do) is no longer appropriate.

The normal burden of proof is on those advocating the existence of some unexpected and novel effect to show the underlying causal mechanisms that lead to that result, so the assumptions can be peer reviewed. I can’t prove that large rebounds don’t exist, just like I can’t prove that black swans don’t exist in the absence of a perfectly accurate universal census of swan colors, but if someone brings me a black swan, the problem is solved. And that’s what those of us skeptical about large rebound effects continue to request: bring us a black swan!

Our story so far

After Jesse Jenkins’ reply to my email of Friday February 4, 2011 I realized that it’s time to step back and summarize what we’ve learned from this intensive discussion, whose 30-odd participants posted over a hundred contributions in the last week of January 2011. I initially asked those supporting the existence of big rebound effects to lay out a specific example so we could avoid the usual definitional problems that afflict discussions about any complex phenomenon. The lessons that emerged from this process give insights into the meaning and importance of scientific integrity. They also illuminate claims about whether energy efficiency can contribute to solving global climate change, so this debate
is deeply consequential.

This particular part of the thread began with my posing a logical conundrum, which I expressed in an email addressed to Harry Saunders on January 25, 2011:

I don’t understand the following statement in your email below:

‘the backfire comes from energy efficiency gains enabling producers to reconfigure new productive capacity to use more energy profitably.’

I don’t see how this can be true except in special cases where energy is a huge fraction of production costs. One such special case may be data centers (a sector with which I have more than passing familiarity) but there aren’t many others that fall into the same category. For most companies energy is a small (single digit) percentage of their total costs, so I don’t see how energy efficiency gains on their own can have more than a modest effect on their productive capacity.

It is this puzzle that we need to resolve. One the one hand, energy is a tiny part of total costs for most consumers and productive parts of the economy. On the other hand, the rebound advocates claim that reducing these tiny costs somehow generates additional activity leading to more energy use, offsetting the initial energy savings.

Harry and Ted Nordhaus both reacted to my request for evidence with a reiteration that the econometric and modeling studies are sufficient and that no further evidence need be produced to demonstrate that rebounds are large. As Amory Lovins subsequently pointed out, this inverts the usual burden of proof. It’s impossible for me to prove, for example, that a black swan does not exist in the absence of a perfectly accurate universal census of swan colors. It’s incumbent on one who claims black swans do exist to produce one, otherwise it is just speculation, even if based on complex calculations and models.

So I asked for a specific example (“bring me a black swan!”) and Amory seconded that request. The request was met with resistance most explicitly by Ted, but also to some extent by Harry. They said that it was complicated and difficult to create such simple examples, and that those arguing against rebounds were focusing on micro effects, when the real action, in their view, was at the macro level. For example, Ted on January 26, 2011 said “Amory and Jon know perfectly well that there is no ‘simple’ way to track the complex and manifold processes of macro-rebound. What you end up with is a very elaborate model.” Ted also responded to Amory’s reiteration of the need for a simple calculation by saying

“Getting even heuristic clarity requires making all sorts of assumptions abou tproduction functions and elasticities of demand and substitution. I think you know this perfectly well Amory. What you are really asking is that we bound the analysis in all sorts of ways that make it not an analysis of macroeconomic rebound at all.”

Waving the flag of complexity is really a distraction. One can abstract from the literature plausible ranges for various parameters and carry through the simplified calculation using those ranges. If the factors causing large rebounds are clearly understood, then they can be explained in such a simplified calculation. If someone can’t explain those factors, they don’t really understand the phenomenon.

What I and other skeptics of large rebound also suspect is that the results of the complex models projecting large rebound effects are driven by deeply buried assumptions and divergence between reality and how the models represent that reality.(1) Real firms and consumers almost invariably do not behave like the economic models predict, due to cognitive limitations, information asymmetries, split incentives, principal- agent problems, transaction costs, increasing returns to scale, and other issues that are almost never included in those models.(2)

In my experience(3) an excellent way to diagnose such modeling problems is by examining a specific example. This is why I’ve insisted that advocates for large rebound can’t just point to the previous literature or to modeling results to prove their case””they need to demonstrate that they understand the causal mechanisms and the embedded assumptions so we can think them through together and determine if we all agree. Working through an example is the best means to that end.

To spur the discussion, Jim Sweeney, who is one the world’s top energy economists, on January 26, 2011 produced his illustrative example, and explained why he thought the rebound effect was real but small in most cases. He pointed out the key role that assumptions about the cost of efficiency play in the calculation, because that cost must be subtracted from spending elsewhere in the economy and so offset (at least to some degree) the stimulating effect of the savings. He also asked again for specific examples illustrating the claims Ted and Harry made. Later that same day Jesse rose to the challenge and provided another example showing rebounds greater than 50% (i.e., more than half of the energy savings would be taken back in his example).

Interestingly, Ted agreed (on January 27, 2011) with my problem statement for this exercise, but still did not participate in analyzing the specific example itself:

I want to second Jonathan’s observation that ‘the question is better phrased as “under what conditions is rebound a problem, and in those cases, how big is it?”‘

He proceeded to give a useful summary of where he thought the debate then rested:

In response to both David’s article and Harry’s blog, a number of folks on this list suggested, with a great deal of certitude, not only that backfire wasn’t proven but that rebound is “insignificant” and this has sparked a rather wide ranging debate about rebound that I think has generally arrived at some agreement that in many sectors it is probably quite substantial””we can quibble about whether it is 30% or 50% or 70% but whatever that number is, in most sectors it is probably not 5%. I am happy to concede that backfire has not been “proven,” and suspect that it may not ultimately be provable, at least through standard quantitative methods. But it is also problematic that Amory and others have for so long dismissed the phenomena as non-existent(4) or insignificant and in so doing suggested that we could expect linear reductions, or something close to it, in energy use and emissions from engineering estimates of energy savings from technical efficiency.

This is much more nuanced statement than the one he made the day before (or the ones that appear on the Breakthrough Institute web site):

Once we dispense with the canard that there is a free lunch here””that significant reductions in energy use and emissions can be achieved with net economic benefit or very low cost through technical efficiency improvements””we can get on with the business of developing realistic climate mitigation scenarios.

These statements do represent progress, however, particularly the agreement on the problem statement.

So far, so good. Science thrives on debate about such specific examples, where everything is clearly defined and laid out for all to see. Jim and Amory then went through Jesse’s example and identified empirical and methodological errors that, when corrected as per Amory’s email of January 27, 2011, reduced the rebound effect to a few percent, which is consistent with what those arguing against large rebounds have been saying all along: the effect is small except in a few special cases. Amory also pointed out that the macro effects were a relatively small contributor to the overall effect in the example created by Jesse, which is odd because Ted and Harry said at various points that the macro effects are the most important ones, and we hoped that Jesse’s example would illuminate why they are big and how they work.

Then things started to run off the rails. Instead of digging into Amory’s specific criticisms, rebound proponents went silent for about a week, with the exception of Harry, who mused on January 29, 2011 about four potential ways to achieve the same end as analyzing a concrete example without actually analyzing a concrete example. He made a telling comment at the end of this email: “I hope it is not assumed that I am running away from the numerical examples challenge; and that the above is deemed a reasonable shot at attaining the same end.” It seemed strange to me at the time that someone would write an email proposing ways not to (or reasons why not to) create a concrete example when there was already a concrete example under discussion, awaiting his comment.

Harry closed with the following sentence: “I re-state my position: rebound is real, is measurable, and is significant. And to that I will add: concrete and physically comprehensible.” Things that are “physically comprehensible” can be explained in a simplified calculation, so I was again puzzled by his reticence about the specific example.

After a week of radio silence about Amory and Jim’s critiques, I sent an email (on February 4, 2011) prompting the group to respond so we could continue our joint learning process. Jesse replied that same day””I reproduce his email below in its entirety:

You’ve caught me just as I’m preparing to leave for a week’s long vacation, so I’m afraid won’t be able to write a thorough reply to Amory’s critique.

My brief response however is this: you asked for a simple but specific numerical example of how rebound works. I provided one, expressly in generic terms, with numbers that were roughly appropriate for an industrial sector, but clearly not drawn from specific analysis of the example sector I (perhaps foolishly) decided to specify (e.g. I decided to use a chemicals plant as our example, since it could help us visualize what I was talking about more concretely, when perhaps it should have just been left as a generic industrial facility). Amory then proceeded to provide critique of the specific figures I utilized in this generic example, based on very specific experiences he has from clients within the chemical sector.

I didn’t reply with a detailed rebuttal, because the point of the exercise was not to provide a concrete and rigorously accurate description of rebound at an actual chemicals plants, but rather to provide a clear sketch of the mechanisms at work, and how they can together sum to quite significant rebound.

I provided this example because you and others had decided to completely ignore a whole set of published academic research that does provide far more rigorous calculations and depictions of rebounds at work in various industrial and end-use contexts.

Suffice it to say, I believe having clearly shown how rebound mechanisms operate in plain terms, providing you with the asked-for explanation of the casual mechanisms at work, the realm of debate should center now not on Amory’s rebuttal to my straw example, but on your as of yet absent rebuttal of any of the specific academic research on the topic. In other words, let’s not ignore the dozens of papers on the subject at hand, as we instead focus on picking nits over a straw example provided for illustrative purposes only.

Clearly Jesse misunderstood the purpose of the simple example, which was to facilitate dialogue between people whose terminology and analytical conventions differ. The only way this technique works is if there is a discussion of the validity of each empirical assumption and the structure of the calculation. That’s why Amory and Jim went point by point through the example to analyze those assumptions. Most of Amory’s comments were methodological and did not depend on his specific experiences in chemical plants. He and Jim variously pointed out apparent double-counting, a fourfold-high estimate of energy intensity (in one of the most energy-intensive manufacturing sectors), the blanket assumption of zero cost for efficiency investments, and other specific issues with Jesse’s proposed mechanisms and summation.

Instead of addressing each point of Amory and Jim’s critique with technical corrections and commentary, Jesse chose to dismiss those concerns as “nits”, which I don’t think is a fair description for a correction factor of roughly 10 to 20. He also said:

I didn’t reply with a detailed rebuttal, because the point of the exercise was not to provide a concrete and rigorously accurate description of rebound at an actual chemical plant, but rather to provide a clear sketch of the mechanisms at work, and how they can together sum to quite significant rebound.

The distinction between these two concepts eludes me. Clearly a “clear sketch of the mechanisms at work” requires a “concrete and rigorously accurate description of rebound at an actual [insert chosen industry here] plant”. And if one can’t create “a concrete and rigorously accurate description of rebound at an actual plant.”  Why should we believe claims about the effect of rebound on the broader economy?

Jesse complains again (as he and Ted and Harry have done previously) that we’re ignoring all the published research, but this deflects attention from the real issue. He and his colleagues claim to be the experts in big rebound effects, but are unable or unwilling to produce and defend a specific example that accurately represents the results of that research, and that is the crux of the matter. At various points in this discussion, advocates for rebound have lectured us about the complexity of their macroeconomic calculations but failed to produce a coherent explanation of the relevant factors leading those calculations to their results. If these models are so sophisticated and clearly structured, then the driving factors ought to be explainable to other analysts, but we still await that explanation.

When someone creates an example and publishes it (in this case in an email trail), scientific etiquette dictates that the creator address serious and substantive critiques, owning up to errors where they arise and defending their facts and arguments as the evidence dictates. But on the substantive critiques of the specific example, Jesse and his colleagues remain conspicuously silent. Jesse’s reply above says, in essence, that the details don’t matter. But they do matter, both procedurally and substantively. That’s why I requested the example, and why I initially thought he provided it.

For scientific knowledge to progress, claims by competing experts need to be weighed by different peer groups as a check on groupthink. There are myriad examples where like thinking researchers go down blind alleys because of their unexamined prior assumptions. I think that this is what may be happening with rebound proponents in this discussion, although we won’t know for sure until we’ve dug more into this specific example and the models supporting the various claims.

I’ve been able to identify three distinct (high-level) types of rebound in our discussion thread to date:

1) Micro rebounds, which are zero (for those end-uses afflicted by the principal agent problem or otherwise not subject to user control), very small (a few percent) for many end-uses, or modest (10-30%) for a few special cases like space heating and personal automobiles.

2) Macro rebounds associated with re-spending of money saved by efficiency, which are capped at 6-8% of net savings (after counting the cost of efficiency) on average because that’s the percentage of GDP associated with energy

3) Macro rebounds associated with other substitution effects in economically productive sectors of the economy.(5) This is the term I’m having the most trouble understanding, given that energy is generally a very small part of the costs for most businesses, and this is the one that is least well explained by proponents of this phenomenon.

There’s also a separate discussion on the popular interpretation of rebound confusing increasing wealth, technology changes, and other trends with the actual rebound effect, but that has more to do with the New Yorker article and the Breakthrough Institute’s blog postings than with Harry’s academic paper, and we can put that aside for now.

I think one focus should now be on understanding macro rebounds of the second type, because those seem to be the ones most in dispute. I ask now (again) that rebound proponents bring forth a black swan (i.e. a simplified clearly and fully explained example illustrating rebounds, where cash flows to different parts of the economy are identified). Once you do, we’ll of course examine it closely and make sure it really is a black swan and not a white one with dyed feathers, but after such an examination we’ll say “We were wrong. Black swans exist” or we’ll tell you why we’re not yet convinced, and the discussions will continue until we reach agreement. That’s how this process is supposed to work, and I hope we can make it work in this instance, because this issue is an important one that affects society’s judgments about the costs and potential for reducing greenhouse gas emissions in coming decades.

I would also ask rebound advocates to cease writing blog posts with misleading categorical statements like “Why Energy Efficiency Does not Decrease Energy Consumption.” If we agree on the above problem statement, the question simply cannot be framed in that way. Efficiency may save less than we estimate in some cases, and we all agree that we need to identify and quantify those cases. By continuing to make blanket statements like “efficiency never saves energy” or the idea that “significant reductions in energy use and emissions can be achieved with net economic benefit or very low cost through technical efficiency improvements” is a “canard”, the policy debate is sidetracked and people without the technical background to evaluate those claims jump to erroneous conclusions (as many did after reading the New Yorker article).

We owe it to science, ourselves, and the public””some of whom will presumably hear about our conversation from the prominent energy/environment journalists  present””to persevere until we reach mutual clarity and understanding. Otherwise those journalists might draw a conclusion something like this:

Proponents of large energy-efficiency rebound effects fail to prove their case.

Advocates of the thesis that “rebound” effects will offset much, most, all, or more than all energy savings from increasing end-use efficiency””a thesis popularized by David
Owen’s recent and controversial New Yorker article””were asked in an early-2011 email exchange to illustrate their proposed rebound mechanisms with a hypothetical numerical example. Jesse Jenkins from the Breakthrough Institute obliged them. Jim Sweeney (Stanford) and Amory Lovins (Rocky Mountain Institute) then pointed out specific apparent errors whose correction would reduce Jenkins’s calculated rebound by about 10-20-fold (to a few percent, consistent with their own estimates). Further, the macroeconomic effects that Jenkins and his fellow-advocates had claimed were very large turned out in his example to be very small. Yet neither Jenkins nor his co-proponents rebutted the Sweeney and Lovins critiques. Jenkins now wants to abandon rather than uphold his own example, and big-rebound proponents appear to have withdrawn from the conversation. They insist that their economic calculations prove they’re right, no further proof is required, and the effects they posit are too complex for a numerical example to reflect. This behavior invites the inference that they won’t defend their sweeping claims because they can’t, and that inference will strengthen so long as they fail to do so. The exchange upholds the strength of the scientific process in clarifying understanding and exposing error, although it remains to be seen whether this goal is shared equally by both sides of the conversation. Asked for comment, Lovins quoted Harvard biology professor E.O. Wilson: “Sometimes a concept is baffling, not because it is profound but because it is wrong.”

Presumably that’s not the sort of conclusion that Ted, Jesse, Harry, and other big-rebound proponents had in mind when they launched this conversation. The remedy is obvious: rejoin it, address Jim’s and Amory’s specific critiques, and show us where they’re wrong. We’d all love to learn.

———-

Endnotes:

1 An example of such an embedded assumption is the mapping of Dale Jorgensen’s economic data to energy-using sectors in Harry’s latest paper (here), which Lee Schipper and Skip Laitner raised as problematic for that analysis””Harry promised to investigate. That paper, which is still a working paper and has not been subject to detailed peer review, is the one that rebound proponents have most commonly been citing in this debate as containing the best evidence for rebound, but this unexamined assumption about economic sector coverage is one that may have a substantial effect on the results. There are of course many other such unexamined assumptions in any economic modeling exercise, and to truly understand the results, those assumptions must be unearthed and scrutinized. That’s the purpose of the simple calculation.

2 For details, see the excellent book by Stephen DeCanio 2003. Economic Models of Climate Change: A Critique. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave-Macmillan.

3 For those who don’t know me, I have been working with economic models for more than two decades and was the founder of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory’s Energy Forecasting group. I also led that group for almost a dozen years. For more details, go to here.

4 Amory Lovins, who has been following and occasionally contributing to the rebound literature for several decades, doesn’t think he’s ever claimed rebound doesn’t exist””just that it’s generally small.

5 Jim, Amory, and others view this as mostly a micro effect (internal to firms), so there’s a terminological and definitional issue here.

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27 Responses to Rebound effect: The Breakthrough Institute’s attack on clean energy backfires

  1. daveE says:

    During the gas crises of the mid 70s prices went up, solar flourished, efficiency improved (at least with foreign cars–which captured market share) and consumption went down. Maybe there was a rebound effect but it was not immediately obvious.

  2. Mike Roddy says:

    Fascinating indeed. Nordhaus, Shellenberger, and Jenkins are examples of the danger of possessing a little knowledge.

    Their motives are economic. Wealthy foundations support BTI because, like Roger Pielke Jr., they claim to have environmental and climate concerns, but oppose policies that would effect actual change. This enables the managers of these social investment funds to continue to reap income from fossil fuel companies, while asking taxpayers to fund whatever progress might occur in the form of research. Realistic carbon taxes and charges for fossil fuel and timber externalities are off the table.

    In some cases, the heirs or the wealthy are unaware of the con, because BTI and Pielke are good at one thing: talking. There are many examples of this besides the spurious rebound work cited here.

  3. Kristen says:

    Economist James Barrett has a sensible response to the New Yorker article and the “rebound effect” in his two recent commentaries. You can find them on RealClimateEconomics.org.

    http://realclimateeconomics.org/wp/archives/654
    http://realclimateeconomics.org/wp/archives/647

  4. Ted Parson says:

    There don’t appear to be links to either Jesse’s numerical example or the substantive criticisms by Jim and Amory. Assuming I’m not just failing to see what’s in front of my face, can you please add them?

  5. AL says:

    Energy efficiency on its own is ineffective. If we do not change our consumption patterns all energy efficiency does is buy a little bit of time if the status-quo, “business-as-usual”, ecocidal culture continues unimpeded. People define themselves increasingly by how much and what they consume. This generation consumes way more per capita than the previous generation, and so on. Add to that the ever growing hundreds of millions of new consumers in China and India that want to consume like the latest generations of americans do and any gains in efficiency are essentially meaningless.

    I honestly cannot see how increasing energy efficiency matters at all if we are all defining ourselves (knowingly or not) as consumers and we all want to consume more.

    Energy efficiency is only an effective strategy if it is coupled with genuine sustainability and an unprecedented, rapid, and radical redefining of what we are and what we want to be as human beings.

    AL

  6. Larry Shultz says:

    The real median wage has been dropping since 9-1972.In the 60s and before wage growth and GNP growth went hand in hand. Many families in a private attempt to improve their lot sent another member into the labor force. After the peak in real household income in 1999 many families in a private attempt to improve their lot increased their debt loads. That strategy only works for a while due to interest costs.

    To what extent does declining median and household income lower energy use versus effeciency? To what extent do payments on debt decrease energy use?

    Some people who could not afford a home just drove further until they found a distance where the price dropped off to affordability. This increased energy use to get to work thus increased gasoline use.

    We also import energy when we buy steel from China, plastic, and nitrogen fertilizers from abroad. I think it is only fair to take that into account also along with the embedded energy in what is exported.

    If efficiency gains can keep up with the decline rate of fossil fuels that would be nice. However efficiency gains are a low hanging fruit problem. It becomes harder and harder to gain the next 8%. There is also a problem of carbon dioxide and methane emmissions that increase due to the fact that the easiest oil, gas, and coal has already been mined so there is less net energy delivered to society, which is what actually matters.

    Then there is the matter of the energy cost of climate change that efficiency has to keep up with along with world population, topsoil, and aquifer depletions. Unless we change our monetary system to one of steady state, efficiency has to forever decrease energy use at the same time the economy is expanding.

  7. I lack the skills needed to intelligently referee an economics debate, but I know good writing when I see it. Jon’s superb writing–his clarity, precision, persuasion and civility–brought the debate alive and made it accessible to a layman. Thanks for the repost.

  8. Bob Lang says:

    AL #5

    Excellent post! Looking forward to more of your insightful comments.

  9. Tom says:

    Interesting post. I think the rebound effect is real, but after doing more reading it is probably a relatively small effect. And certainly no reason not to strive towards greater efficiency if you consider the alternative. The amount of savings from increasing energy efficiency that, in turn, results in more disposable income will be relatively small in comparison to most family or business budgets. So, even if that savings winds up in increasing energy usage directly or indirectly the net effect will be small. I’m more concerned that as costs for the basics go down as a proportion of total income then homes get bigger, cars get bigger, consumption increases, increasing carbon emissions. It seems reasonable that increasing effiency will make appliances and cars more affordable in China and India thereby increasing energy consumption and carbon emissions in a big way.

  10. Mike Roddy says:

    Al, no solution, including energy efficiency, is going to solve our problems on its own. However, using energy more wisely is cost effective, and can be implemented immediately.

    Sweden, for example, has half the carbon footprint that we do, and it would be very difficult to make the case that their lifestyles are less comfortable.

    As for your point about redefining ourselves in order to consume a lot less- this is pie in the sky, unfortunately, since it would require spiritual and moral changes that are unlikely to occur regardless of incentives or evidence. Energy efficiency and changes to clean energy and durable, inert materials are more realistic strategies.

  11. Ruben says:

    To throw into the mix–I wonder if all the discussion around the cost of energy (monetary) is less than useful. What we care about is climate change, right? I was privy to some recent ecological footprint analysis, which found, for consumable goods, about 85% of the impact of a product is in its embodied energy.

    It seems to me that efficiency is no good without an accompanying constraint. So, the commenter above notes that Sweden has half the footprint. They have greater efficiency, with a constraint of wages. Even if your dishwasher uses half the energy, your wage is spent and you can’t buy another one, nor take a trip to Spain. So, making things cheaper is the wrong goal. Make efficiency the only option, and preferably more expensive.

    I don’t think this will become really meaningful until there is a hard limit on our carbon allowance, and that doesn’t look really likely to me.

    What it comes down to is we are using far more energy per capita than the world can stand.

  12. scatter says:

    Ruben what products are those?

    A power drill, quite possibly, but virtually all other energy using products are the other way round – more like 85% in their in use consumption. Once we’ve reduced in use energy demand to a minimum then life extension is essential.

  13. Wit's End says:

    When are economists going to factor in the cost of NOT switching to clean energy? Like, to the insurance industry?

    http://www.desdemonadespair.net/2011/02/australia-climate-disasters-hit.html

    Mike says: “Sweden, for example, has half the carbon footprint that we do, and it would be very difficult to make the case that their lifestyles are less comfortable.”

    I suspect that, considering the consumerist mentality Americans measure things by, they might actually consider the Swedish lifestyle less “comfortable” – their homes, apartments, hotel rooms, refrigerators, and cars are on average much smaller than ours. Plus, they eat less. Then again, they don’t have our freedoms.

    I was looking for a comparison of footprints and living standards, and I found this link from the early 1990′s. It’s OT but so hysterically funny I have to post some of the statistics. Go to the source if you want a really good laugh!

    http://www.huppi.com/kangaroo/8Comparison.htm

    Debris inhaled per person per year:

    United States 81 pounds
    Finland 44
    Sweden 44
    Europe 26
    Netherlands 24
    Germany 24
    Denmark 20
    Norway 15
    United Kingdom 11

    Annual air miles per person:

    United States 1,698
    Canada 1,105
    Netherlands 1,014
    United Kingdom 902
    Norway 829
    Sweden 575
    Finland 506
    Denmark 476
    Japan 425
    Germany 344

    Percent of all children born out of wedlock:

    Sweden 46.4%
    Denmark 41.9
    United States 21.5
    United Kingdom 19.2
    Canada 12.1
    Germany 9.4
    Netherlands 8.3
    Switzerland 5.6
    Japan 1.0
    Having children out of wedlock, however, does not mean that the father is not living at home and offering support. Here is the actual percentage of families headed by single parents:

    United States 8.0%
    Germany 6.7
    Netherlands 6.7
    Canada 5.6
    Denmark 5.1
    France 5.1
    United Kingdom 4.0
    Sweden 3.2
    Japan 2.5

    America’s decline in home ownership is symbolic of a larger erosion in living standards, which Americans have met in two ways. The first is that America has gone deeply into debt to maintain its lifestyle. The second is that families have been able to hold ground only because wives have joined their husbands in the work force. (Note: this is a comment on the difficulty of making ends meet, not on working women!) Europe and Japan suffer much less from either of these problems:

    Percent of families earning two paychecks:

    United States 58%
    Japan 33
    France 33
    Italy 20
    Germany 18
    Netherlands 16

    Average Household Debt

    United States $71,500
    United Kingdom 35,500
    Germany 27,700
    France 27,650
    Netherlands 5,000
    Switzerland 800

    Average Household Savings

    Japan $45,118
    Switzerland 19,971
    Denmark 18,405
    France 17,649
    Germany 17,042
    Norway 15,196
    Netherlands 14,282
    Finland 12,387
    Sweden 10,943
    United Kingdom 7,451
    United States 4,201

  14. Ruben says:

    Well, footprinting is not LCA. So they don’t compare a had drill to a power drill, they look at the whole category–consumables.

    Several people have calculated 80% of products end up in the dump within six weeks of purchase. So that means the pallet that carried a hundred drill, the saran wrap on the pallet, the outer case, the cardboard box each drill came in—there is a vast amount of unnecessary trash that would be captured in the flow measured by footprinting.

    And, given the average drill is used for just a couple of hours in its lifetime, the embodied energy will be way higher. Borrow one from a tool library instead.

  15. Larry Shultz says:

    As most income gains since the 70′s have gone to the top decile I believe the rebound effect is dampened because the marginal propensity to spend money is less for the top decile than for other deciles.

  16. David Stern says:

    I think consumer rebound effects are fairly moderate based on the evidence but in industry they can be larger. Finding a large rebound effects just strengthens the argument for a strong carbon pricing regime. I doubt that is what these TBI people are trying to say, but that is the logic of it.

  17. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    The careful debunking of the ‘rebound effect’, which seems to be a PR re-hash of Jevon’s Paradox, or even, ‘Law’, won’t make any difference. This crude, disingenuous, denialist pseudo-science will now enter the denialist canon, to be endlessly regurgitated by the Dunning-Krugerites to show us all just how clever they are, and how dumb all those Commie ‘watermelons’. And you can bet that Rightwing rags like ‘Economist’ will keep up their propaganda efforts. You can tell just how impossible is the task of ‘debating’ the denialists by any visit to a comments blog in the MSM. The concentrated imbecility on display, the raw hatred of environmentalism and environmentalists, and the hypertrophied arrogance are breathtaking and frightening. I saw one the other day where Arrhenius’ findings were being simply dismissed because later in his career he became a eugenecist. It’s simply Rightwing ideology run amok, as you can see from the MSM bias, and the uniform denialism of their cohorts of Rightwing propagandists.
    Every argument is contorted to arrive at predetermined outcomes. This is a sick parody of rational argument and the scientific method, but this is a pre-Enlightenment project, that grows out of the Right’s absolute determination to dominate society and profit from that domination. There is now no hope that the US will play the role that its technological prowess would lead us to expect it could. It seems certain that if we are to escape disaster, which I daily have less and less hope of, it will be up to China and perhaps the saner elements in Europe and the other rising powers, Brazil, India etc.

  18. Rob C. says:

    Mulga, you touch on an important part of the disinformation campaign; the online astroturf trolls. George Monbiot wrote an interesting article on this a while back: http://www.monbiot.com/2010/12/13/reclaim-the-cyber-commons/

    I think he has part of it, but I also think the PR campaign we are combating has another strategic goal in mind. I think they are ultimately after something as simple as SEO. By incorporating keywords that would likely come up in searches by libertarians, they attract a group of strident followers who will repeat their BS free-of-charge. This way they can engineer the appearance of a large controversy that doesn’t exist.

    I think the best way to fight these repeated lies and disruptive trolls is to confront them with links to the truth. The tried-and-true strategy of “don’t feed the trolls” backfires in this instance because they will simply repeat their talking point and move up the search chain. Exposing their lies and the moneyed interests behind them have the best chance of motivating the public to demand responsible leadership.

  19. cmc says:

    Also, the indirect rebound effects (numbers 2 and 3) seem to only be valid under the assumption that efficiency causes economic growth. Shouldn’t even the proponents of a big rebound effect be in favor of efficiency – if not for the energy savings at least for this growth?

  20. Joan Savage says:

    I would like to see the rebuttal in more detail, as it may have already covered what’s bothering me. And/or, it may have used other language than mine. I talk ecology better than economics.

    The BTI article by Shellenberger, Nordhaus, and Jenkins (Dec 21, 2010) contains non-credible statements. Two are standouts early on.

    “Consuming energy more efficiently allows us to consume ever-greater quantities of it.”

    This is not consistent with conservation of matter. Consuming anything, efficiently or not, does not generate more quantity of it. Efficiency is a scavenger.

    “Ancient Babylonians had to work 41 hours to earn enough wealth to power the equivalent of a 75 watt incandescent light bulb for an hour. By 1992, it took the average American just a half-second.”

    That ignores the laws of thermodynamics. The physical work done by any individual human body in a half second does not itself provide the wealth to pay for the illuminated light bulb.

    The average American in 1992 ‘enslaved’ other energy, mostly fossil, to trade for the illumination of the light bulb. The fundamental difference between ancient Babylonians and 1992 Americans is less about their efficiency; it’s more about a wildly different total consumption of energy.

    The enslavement image comes from Luis De Sousa’s 2008 estimate of labor equivalents. De Sousa wrote, “The average american uses 60+ barrels of oil equivalent (oil, gas and coal) per year (360 billion joules), which implies a fossil fuel ‘slave’ subsidy of around 60-450 ‘human years’ per person.”

    Some may have already guessed that I follow the ecologic perspectives on economic process developed by Charles A.S. Hall, Robert Costanza, Cutler Cleveland, and others.

  21. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Rob C, I agree. Places like here, where the nong-nongs are kept at bay, are far more valuable. I ritually bash my head against the wall, three times, and once again for luck, every time I allow myself to be inveigled into arguing with the Dunning-Krugerites and denialist cynics. There is something so infuriating, so demanding of rebuke and rebuttal, about the concerted idiocy and dishonesty, but it’s all just wasted time, and an unforgivable exercise in egotism. They obviously see that as useful, whereby the sane fraction of humanity wastes its time wrestling with slippery devils beyond the reach of reason and humanity. It’s a trap, cunningly baited with nonsense that just calls for criticism, particularly as the stakes are so unimaginably high,but it’s best left alone as forbidden fruit.

  22. Barry says:

    I did research on embodied energy and CO2 on cars and light trucks.

    Even for a high-mileage sub-compact like Yaris, the embodied energy is just 15% of the energy used to shove the thing around. Ditto for CO2.

    For an SUV the embodied energy is about 10% of energy used to push the beast around.

    You would use far less energy by scraping every single car and light truck sitting on the new car lots of the USA, building a new Prius to replace them and driving that the same distance. The Prius is so efficient where it counts — less energy to push it around — that the embodied energy of the original car plus the embodied energy in the new Prius plus the energy to push the Prius around is still much smaller than just the energy to push every other shiny new car around.

    Energy efficiency in autos provides a huge reduction in energy use and CO2.

    Ditto for home heating system. Hot water heaters.

    In fact it is hard to think of any of our major CO2 sources where embodied energy is anywhere close to the energy used to run them.

  23. Barry says:

    Uh…my comment about Prius being most efficient in energy to use is obviously last year’s data. I’m pretty sure the Volt and Leaf are even better now.

    Wish I had one.

  24. Edward says:

    I think you mean Jevons’ Paradox.
    Jevons’ Paradox says that increasing efficiency results in more energy use because when you increase efficiency, you have money left over to buy more energy. “Rebound Effect” is a clumsy way to say it and the above article is unclear.

    Jevons’ Paradox is moot because we need to eliminate the CO2 emission, not reduce our energy usage. GW is about CO2, not about energy. Human energy usage is so minute compared to natural energy flow that human energy use is irrelevant. What is not irrelevant is human CO2 generation.

    Human CO2 generation is also small compared to natural CO2 flow, but the natural flow was in balance. We have disturbed the balance. As long as our source of energy is not a source of CO2, it is OK.

  25. Mike Roddy says:

    Embodied energy for homebuilding components is trivial compared to their contributions to energy efficiency. I studied this in detail about 15 years ago.

  26. Marion Delgado says:

    Calling it Jevons Paradox is silly. He was mostly wrong, and it’s yet another economics “law” that shouldn’t be dignified by pretending free market economics has the same weight as science. Rebound effect is more explanatory and has the virtue of not canonizing YAFME.