The Rebound Effect
Governments and corporations often push consumers to make the seemingly ‘green’ choice by switching to sustainable alternatives. However, making these switches without careful consideration can actually cause unintentional harm to the environment.
But what are “rebound effects”?
The term rebound effect often refers to the economic responses that arise from improved energy efficiency . These behavioural responses can either be direct or indirect. For example, switching to a fuel-efficient/electric vehicle tends to make driving cheaper, meaning people either drive more often (direct rebound effect), or put the money saved on fuel towards other goods and services which may involve greater energy use (indirect rebound effect).
Here are some examples that you might make in your everyday life that can have rebound effects:
Turning off your lights and electrical items saves you money. Will you use that money saved to go on a holiday abroad?
Do you always choose a paper bag over a plastic bag at the shops because you don’t want to consume single use plastics? Did you know that making paper bags release more emissions than a plastic bag and do not last as long.
Do you buy new sustainable products to replace your current items? Although sustainable, producing eco-products releases emissions and disposing of current unsustainable items which still have life left contributes to waste.
Rebound effects are often underpinned by moral licensing. This is when past pro-environmental behaviours encourage individuals to disengage from future sustainable behaviours . Research has found that when reminded of past environmentally friendly behaviour, people’s motivation to change unsustainable behaviour was reduced . The justifications behind these inconsistent behaviours are yet to be fully understood. However, research has begun to investigate the role of compensatory green beliefs (beliefs that eco-behaviours can compensate for non-environmental behaviours) , and how these may act as a tool to explain moral licensing and the rebound effect. While research in this area is developing, we need to use other methods to reduce our unintentional harm on the environment.
How can you avoid these effects?
While rebound effects do not seem to completely cancel out the good that comes from switching to more sustainable behaviours, reducing them will prevent beneficial gains being translated into harmful consumption .
The most effective ways of reducing rebound effects are through systemic and government change, including but not limited to investing in natural capital, fair global redistribution and/or reducing the volume of work . However, a wider movement is needed to bring about these societal and economic changes.
The good news is there are ways you can change your approaches to avoid harming the environment by mistake.
Carefully consider how you spend any saved money. Ideally, use that money to invest in other sustainable technologies/products (remember to consider the rebound effects of those choices too!).
Reduce your overall consumption. Reuse items you already have and consider whether you need convenient items (such as paper bags), even if they seem sustainable. Cloth bags last much longer than both and release fewer emissions when produced.
Communicate what you have learnt about the rebound effect to others so that we can begin to make better choices together.
Why is this important?
Although making sustainable swaps is highly recommended, consideration must be made when deciding how these decisions may impact other choices you make. There is no single way to achieve the goal of eliminating rebound effects. Yet, by reading this article you have taken the first and arguably, most important step, educating yourself about how your sustainable choices may result in rebound effects. By being able to actively avoid the rebound effect, you can avoid inadvertently damaging the environment.
If you are interested in doing some further reading into the rebound effect and its consequences, here are a couple starting points:
The rebound effect reports by UK Energy Research Centre
The journal article by Berkhout, Muskens and Velthuijsen 2000
Chitnis M, Sorrell S. Living up to expectations: Estimating direct and indirect rebound effects for UK households. Energy Economics. 2015;52:S100-S116.
Merritt A, Effron D, Monin B. Moral Self-Licensing: When Being Good Frees Us to Be Bad. Social and Personality Psychology Compass. 2010;4(5):344-357.
Gholamzadehmir M, Sparks P, Farsides T. Moral licensing, moral cleansing and pro-environmental behaviour: The moderating role of pro-environmental attitudes. Journal of Environmental Psychology. 2019;65:101334.
Kaklamanou D, Jones C, Webb T, Walker S. Using Public Transport Can Make Up for Flying Abroad on Holiday. Environment and Behavior. 2015;47(2):184-204.
Sanne C. Dealing with environmental savings in a dynamical economy-how to stop chasing your tail in the pursuit of sustainability. Energy Policy. 2000;28(6-7):487-495.