When being environment-friendly can harm the environment

This is a two-part series on the rebound effect.


When I was 10 years old, we got a new toaster in our house. Until then, toast was a special dish because it took effort to make it. We had to toast bread on the stove, constantly keeping an eye on it in case it got burnt. We also had to eat the toast immediately, or it would get cold and hard.

But the toaster had a built-in off button: if the toast was ready, the toaster would turn itself off. We didn’t even have to eat it immediately, because the toaster would keep the bread warm.

This efficient appliance had a revolutionary impact on our breakfast. Until then, we ate toast probably once or twice a month, typically on weekends. After we purchased the toaster, we would have toast 6 days a week. This continued till I passed out of school at 17.

Because we consumed so much toast, we had to buy go to the grocery store to buy loaves of bread every second day! Overall, it increased the work we had to do to for our breakfast.

Jevon’s paradox/rebound effect

When we overuse an efficient product, we could negate the gains from its efficiency. This is called Jevon’s paradox or the rebound effect.

You’ve probably experienced this in your life. Remember when Reliance Jio disrupted the mobile space in India in 2016? Jio drastically reduced the cost of the highly efficient, 3G mobile data, which caused monthly mobile data usage to rise by 1100% in the country.

I am certain you began using the internet on your phone more frequently from 2016. Did you also start charging your phone more often?

The rebound effect is a problem as we try to reduce our ecological footprint…

In the good old days before the internet and email, people sent letters.

It was almost an ordeal. You had to write the letter carefully (there were no “undo” buttons and no way to send a “retraction” or “correction” letter if you woke up in the middle of the night realizing you made a mistake), put it in an envelope, stick a stamp, go to the post office and post it. It would take a few days or even weeks to reach its destination.

All this changed once email became widespread. It was hard for people to wrap their heads around this new technology. “So, I just type it and click send? And they would INSTANTLY receive what I sent?!”

Sending more emails than necessary increases its ecological footprint
Photo by Burst on Pexels.com

This was supposed to be good for the environment.

The ecological footprint of an email—most of which comes from the electricity used by your device and the internet servers—is 1/16 of the ecological footprint of a letter (which includes paper production, printing, transport and wastage).

Except…

The ease with which we could send emails meant that a lot more emails were exchanged. How much more?

In How bad are Bananas?, Mike Berners-Lee estimates that we send 60 times more emails than we would have sent letters for the same purpose, which means the real ecological footprint of this “environmentally safer option” is 3.75 times that of sending a letter.

Indirect rebounds: Lights for Flights?

The rebound effect can manifest indirectly as we look to improve resource management and climate action. Even if we do not use more of the same product, we could end up using more of a different product.

For example, after fitting your entire house with energy-efficient LED lights, you will conserve energy. This would reduce your ecological footprint and also save money on your electricity bills. Great!

What might you do with those savings? Would you save up over a few months and treat yourself to a vacation? If you did, your travel would negate the positive environmental impact from energy efficient lighting.

Travelling with savings from energy efficient appliances can increase overall ecological footprint
Photo by VisionPic .net on Pexels.com

Tesco’s “Lights for Flights” campaign created this kind of a rebound effect in the UK. For installing LED lights in homes and conserving electricity, Tesco awarded consumers with Air Miles. If the average British household retrofitted their entire home with LEDs and used the Air Miles earned for a London-Paris round-trip, the ecological footprint generated would be twice of what they avoided from the energy efficient lighting.

Rebound effects over large spatial and temporal scales: Can intensive agriculture save the Amazon?

Take Michael Shellenberger’s suggestion to prevent deforestation in the Amazon rainforest. He proposes to allow Brazilian farmers to deforest some areas and provide them with technical resources to practice modern intensive agriculture. Intensification will achieve greater yields (and incomes) per unit area and prevent extensification of agricultural land, he claims. This will save the forest habitats.

Is that a good solution? I see a rebound effect coiling itself up here.

Modern intensive agriculture would certainly arrest deforestation as farmers gain greater yields out of their existing farmland. They would have no need to extend their lands to get more yield.

However, farmers might also think, “What if I extend my fields and brought new land under these intensive practices? I could get even more output than I already am!” The possibility for exponential growth and riches can spin things out of control.

Even if farmers don’t take that train of thought (have a little faith in humanity, Saurab!), intensive agriculture has a problem; it is extractive and degrading. All around the world, places that have practiced this form of agriculture have faced severe consequences—soil quality deterioration, soil erosion, groundwater depletion, eutrophication—which has reduced productivity.

In 20-30 years, intensive agriculture in the Amazon basin could run into similar problems. Would the government and farmers invest in expensive fertilizer subsidies and irrigation projects? Or expand into fertile forest patches?

Intensive farming in the Amazon may not end well
Farming in the Amazon (Wikipedia Commons)

How large can a rebound effect be?

Is it something for us to worry about?

That depends.

For example, several researchers have shown that the magnitude of the rebound effect from switching to energy efficient lighting is not as high as previously thought. This is primarily because you also reach saturation—you wouldn’t want to increase the number of lights in your house after a point!

But in situations where there is no saturation point—3G/4G over 2G internet, home cooling/heating, fuel-efficient cars—the direct rebound effect can be large.

The indirect rebound effect can also quickly get out of control, like in Tesco’s “Lights for Flights” campaign. Tesco withdrew this campaign within a few days of its introduction after backlash from environmental groups.

It is also hard to quantify economy-wide, large-scale rebound effects that occur because of environmental policy. Imagine if the Brazilian government took Shellenberger’s solution into its environmental policy. How would you measure the potential impacts of this policy over the entire Amazon basin over 20-30 years? How would you separate the rebound effect from other potential factors that could influence agricultural practices like price changes, demand fluctuation and natural disasters?

Can we control/stop the rebound effect?

Understanding the potential/observed rebound effect of a new product or policy, quantifying it and introducing remedial instruments (taxes, subsidies, advanced technology and communication strategies) can help reduce the rebound effect and get the maximum environmental benefit of a new product/policy. Take this case study of Swiss hybrid cars consumption.

Subsidies for hybrid car in Switzerland did not create a rebound effect
Photo by Mike on Pexels.com

The study found that after the Swiss government subsidized hybrid cars, there was no direct rebound effect: people did not replace existing eco-efficient cars or drive more. There was also no indirect rebound effect: consumers did not consider their hybrid car as an excuse to spend on other environmentally harmful products. In fact, the data shows that these consumers spent more on environment-friendly products!

So, yes! There is hope. I will discuss these strategies and its applications in Part-II of this series, coming next Saturday. Stay tuned!

Author: Saurab Babu

Usually found sitting with a good book, nibbling on a piece of dark chocolate. Always ready for a good story.

6 thoughts

  1. This post was so interesting. I haven’t really thought about the rebound effect before, and it’s definitely something to be considering when trying to come up with solutions to environmental problems. The way you explained it was very easy to follow, especially with the toast example in the beginning. I shared this with my blog followers!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Beth, thank you so much!
      Yeah, its crazy how everything we do is interconnected and we don’t really understand its effects.
      Thankfully, many governments and companies are becoming concerned about the rebound effect. Hopefully, we’ll see active policies around this in the coming decade under the Sustainable Consumption and Production paradigm.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Your research is an eye-opener. We always thought intensive farming will bring in better and more crops not realizing the harm it is causing. Further LED lights were considered to be good so we shifted to it as energy efficient. I agree we send so many emails whereas one letter would solve the purpose. Enjoyed reading it

    Liked by 2 people

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