Peter Droege

21 August, 2012 — Energy author and urban design academic Peter Droege has warned that only focusing on saving energy and efficiency can actually lead to an increase in greenhouse gas emissions and resource consumption in the “rebound effect”.

Responding to a recent article on the energy savings program by Metcash, for its range of stores including the IGA supermarket chain,  Professor Droege, currently visiting Sydney from his University of Liechtenstein base,
says it is important to remember the “rebound effect”.

Wikipedia refers to the rebound effect or take-back effect as “behavioural or other systemic responses to the introduction of new technologies that increase the efficiency of resource use”.

“These responses tend to offset the beneficial effects of the new technology or other measures taken. While the literature on the rebound effect generally focuses on the effect of technological improvements on energy consumption, the theory can also be applied to the use of any natural resource or other input, such as labour.

“The rebound effect is generally expressed as a ratio of the lost benefit compared to the expected environmental benefit when holding consumption constant.

“The existence of the rebound effect is uncontroversial. However, debate continues as to the size and importance of the effect in real world situations.”

Professor Droege, general chairman, World Council for Renewable Energy and professor of Sustainable Spatial Development, University of Liechtenstein, says, “Efficiency and consumption reduction measures alone have been shown to actually increase overall energy consumption at least as often as they reduce it”.

This, he says, is through “various mechanisms of consumption ‘rebound’ into the space of ‘savings’ – through the very measures themselves, lower energy prices, freed production and consumption capacity or higher productivity.

“This has been fairly well established and long known, but one of these inconvenient truths hidden in the general fog  of ‘sustainability gains’… because efficiency alone operates in a fossil fuel economy it can boost, not lower CO2 emissions.”

Professor Droege says the Rebound Effect,or Jevons Paradox, is supported by literature going back to the early 1990s – “and indeed the 1860s” – although it was important on how it was applied and what conclusions were drawn.

“But the bottom line is pretty simple: technological and process efficiency alone is likely to help boost, not decrease overall energy consumption – and in our case, carbon emissions,” he said.

“It also turns out that the more ambitious the goals in very high energy efficiency measures such as super-insulation the more rise cost and material resource consumption – and by thus lowering resource efficiency energy efficiency alone can become harmful. Efficiency talk alone also serves to perpetuate the fossil fuel economy. A similarly perverse effect is found with carbon trading: it can increase the production of pollution – and the profits to be made actually depend on continued fossil fuel combustion.”

Professor Droege says the overall energy in Australian use is continuously increasing, although at a slower rate, and the share of domestic consumption is declining.

This is due, he believes, to a large extent the rising use of solar PV, temporarily declining manufacturing activity and milder climes ­ and also, but less so, due to efficiency improvements. If the market were left to its devices, without fossil fuel production and combustion and other direct and indirect dirty electricity subsidies, and effectively express the most serious external costs, coal would long be on its way out, says Droege.

Professor Droege says that the single most important progress to be achieved in Australia – socially, economically and environmentally – is the complete and rapid transformation to a ‘renewable nation’: 100 per cent renewable production, cities and architecture. Here he refers to the industry’s recent call for improved indoor air quality in buildings:

That’s important, he says, but the fact that the industry isn’t calling for “fully energy autonomous buildings and urban areas, suggests that it hasn’t really woken up to our major challenge”.