The rebound effect: 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.

Hello, rebound effect!

What is the rebound effect/Jevons Paradox?

When we overuse an efficient product, we could negate the gains from its efficiency. This is called Jevons 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 disposal).

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.

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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 with 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 (Wikimedia 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?

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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. Are there more ways to counter the rebound effect in our personal and professional lives? Check Part-II of this series: Counter the rebound: Make sure you aren’t hurting the environment by mistake.

Author: Saurab Babu

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

22 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 2 people

  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

  3. A brilliant read! Since government subsidies seem to reduce the risk of rebound effects, what are your thoughts on the general issues of overconsumption and overproduction in a free market economic system as a potential contributing factor?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Andrew, thanks a lot!

      Overconsumption and overproduction is definitely a strong contributing factor. I don’t think the free market system would see the rebound effect as a necessarily bad thing, because the consumption patterns of the rebound effect signify “growth”.

      I see two ways to completely eliminate the rebound effect, and one of them is to reduce our absolute consumption. The other is to account for all externalities into the price of the product.

      Unfortunately, both ways are unacceptable to the free market economy system that thrives on more consumption and reduced costs. Sucks, really.

      Hope you are safe 🙂

      Liked by 2 people

  4. Very interesting and definitely needs to be considered. There are so many varied consequences of our actions. Berners Lee gives a lot of insight into this too. Thanks for an informative post.

    Like

    1. Thank you! Yes, we often adopt a compensatory mindset to environmental impacts, which doesn’t work. The environment is so complex.
      Berners-Lee’s book is superb! I’m really enjoying reading it. Glad you liked the post 🙂

      Liked by 2 people

  5. This was very insightful read.
    I would like to add another case study to this.
    To become more environment friendly, the sales of plates made of Sal leaves have increased. Therefore, to keep pace with the demand, more leaves are plucked. Moreover, young leaves are plucked as these are easily molded into a variety of shapes. The effect this has had on the Sal forests of West Bengal and Odisha is appalling. The trees have become barren and there is hardly any new natural forest generation.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. This is a great example, thanks for sharing Punam. But it also saddened me. Sal leaves are unique and beautiful, I have spent 2 years around them in Dehradun. I can’t even begin to imagine how terrible a Sal forest would look if the canopy is barren.
      I wonder how people who chose to buy Sal leaf plates for environmental reasons would react to this.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Kya baat hai Saurab Babu. 😂😂 (Consider this as an appreciation for your name.) Although i have a sawaal. 😂
    I can easily predict that i’m definitely asking a stupid question but i’m having this confusion.

    Can you please explain how there is no “saturation point” in situations involving the examples you gave (3G over 2G etc.)? After all, just like there is a point at which we might not want any more electric bulbs, there must be some point where we might not want any more cars as well.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Sudhanshu, thank you for your compliment and comment 😄

      So, the thing is that we may need more bulbs but we won’t need more light from the bulbs after a particular point. That is the saturation point for electricity usage (within a home).

      In case of using 3G, we would always want faster and faster internet, or better image quality.

      Similarly, we would want more powerful cars (given a choice, the whole world would drive Ferrari, which is a saturation point we may never reach!) That is why I said that these examples don’t really have a saturation point.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. I would consider this a direct rebound effect.

      Better farming efficiency and productivity leading to more land being cleared to implement these efficient practices. It’s a like-for-like effect.

      In indirect rebound effect, the increased efficiency would be displayed through another activity. For example, if these farmers earn more from their increased efficiency and start living in huge, energy intensive houses or started driving big cars. I hope that makes sense?

      P.S: thanks for the correction in the references. I’ll correct it as soon as I can use my laptop!

      Liked by 1 person

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