Is this man the enemy of us hitting our carbon reduction targets? Well, no – the great economic mind that was William Stanley Jevons has not been with us in physical form for well over a century.

It’s fair to say, though, that he does still loom large over the energy efficiency debate, despite the undeniable fact that things have moved on a bit from his day, when cutting demand generally meant using less coal, and using less coal only.

Although we’re somewhat less coal-fired when we were back in Jevons’ day and there are of course more energy-saving options on the table – continued advances in insulation, passive heating, solar panels, heat pumps, not to mention more energy-sensible appliances in our homes to name but a few – the best way forward is still to use less.

And it’s also the case that his famed paradox, better known as the ‘rebound effect’ still has a lot to say about today’s efforts to cut the electricity we’re drawing and the gas we’re burning. It’s something we’re concerned about.

The gist is this – when people switch to an appliance or system that is more efficient, they will use the more efficient appliance more often. For instance, you might decide not to worry about turning your energy saving light bulb off every time you leave the room, because you know it is costing you less to run than an old fashioned bulb. So whilst efficiency is improved, overall energy consumption is not reduced, but can stay much the same.

Nightmare! Sadly, there’s more. Another scary but nonetheless realistic possibility is that as the energy efficiency of a product increases, it will see a corresponding increase in popularity and thus cancel out the individual saving because of its ubiquity.

Then there’s the sort of uber-rebound: you save money on your energy bills so you spend it to buy a plane ticket or supplement your savings to buy a Ferrari and hit the road hard.

A recent study published in the Energy Policy journal and reported by the Guardian sheds further light on how we’re rebounding and by how much. Hold on to your hats:

They found that on average, only about two-thirds of the calculated carbon reductions are likely to be achieved for typical household actions such as lowering the thermostat or reducing food waste. Money saved on the weekly food bill by reducing food waste is money available for going out for dinner at the exotic Thai restaurant on the weekend.

Of course, it is possible that the money saved on the weekly food bill will be spent on an energy-efficient washing machine instead. But it is also possible that the money saved becomes an exotic Thai holiday rather than a Thai meal. In this case, the low-carbon behaviour would have backfired completely.

The same paper even more recently highlighted the specific recent problem of our lust for digital technology, pointing out that while efficiency is rising massively, cost-price and production cost are falling at a similarly dramatic rate, and the corresponding demand negating the ‘green’ credentials of the sector.

Even more disturbing than the Jevons paradox is the incredibly titled Khazzoom-Brookes postulate which suggests that any improvement in energy efficiency within a small section in the economy lead not just to an rebound in energy consumption, but to an overall increase in energy consumption at in the bigger picture.

So what’s to be done? What’s clear is we can’t wait for a critical mass of technological advancement, and increased efficiency to level out demand for energy.  Within a society that is increasingly geared towards consumerism, and perpetual economic growth, how do we ensure that as we all get wealthier, our increasing disposal income is not cause greater demand for energy?

It’s got a lot to do with making changes to our behaviour simultaneously with making energy efficient advances in the products we buy and our homes. Insulation plus knocking that thermostat back a degree plus thinking about whether you really need the washer with the massive drum, for example. Taking a second to switch that ultra-efficient tablet off en-masse when it’s not floating on the information ether, for another.

There does have to be a shift in lifestyles to the point where sustainable behaviour in all parts of our lives is no longer seen as a drag, but something very normal and natural.  As the article concludes:

People can be nudged into making a specific change, but to adopt a low-carbon lifestyle, they need to think about it for themselves. It is tempting to go for the quick wins – but without an opportunity for more meaningful engagement with the issue, the danger is that people will unwittingly crank up the carbon in other areas of their lives.

Certainly, rebounding, and trying to avoid it, an area we’ll be exploring more in the next few months.

With thanks to this great piece on chinadialogue.net for part of the inspiration for this blog.