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Health, Science & Environment

New study suggests ‘rebound effect’ is cutting into emissions reductions efforts

Solar Panels on Roof of Home
Cindy Shebley
/
iStockphoto
Increasing the country’s stock of renewable energy for housing by 1% led to a 0.36% increase in CO2 emissions, a counterintuitive finding from a new University of Utah-led study.

About 12% of energy production in the U.S. comes from renewable sources — such as wind, solar and geothermal.

Many people hope increasing that number will help the world avoid the most serious effects of climate change.

But according to a new study from researchers at the University of Utah, cleaner technology can also lead people to consume more — a concept known as the “rebound effect.”

The study analyzed two of the primary ways the world is trying to reduce emissions — improving energy efficiency and increasing renewable energy production.

For every percentage increase in the overall supply of renewable energy, there was about a .7% decrease in carbon emissions, the study found.

That’s significant, said Lazarus Adua, an environmental sociologist at the University of Utah and the study’s lead author. But when the researchers isolated individual sectors, they found that residential emissions increased by .36%.

“It tells us something,” Adua said. “People are seeing what they are doing. So if they are aware that maybe a large proportion of their energy is coming from renewable sources, their behavior may change. They may say, ‘What is wrong with me being able to set my thermostat lower because I am using clean energy.’”

It’s a conundrum, said Utah State University marketing professor Edwin Stafford, who has studied environmental messaging for close to two decades. He said in general, people are more likely to care about an issue or change their behavior if it’s connected to their values.

He said when he joined the Utah Wind Working Group in 2003 to help promote the use of wind power, he found he was able to get more support by explaining how it could help generate tax revenue for schools. But that approach doesn’t resolve the irony that one of the major appeals of greener technologies is the money people will save, which inevitably gets spent somewhere else.

“That seems to be a consumer behavior issue that has not really been grappled with,” Stafford said. “Do we encourage people to put [their money] into savings? Eventually, people are going to want to spend it, and that might mean a trip to Bali. That's going to take a lot of carbon.”

Adua said his findings suggest technological advances alone won’t be enough to keep climate change from continuing to alter the planet. Broader lifestyle changes are needed, too, driven both by individual action and larger societal investments that provide people with real alternatives to things like driving alone in a car.

“The reason why some people will push against some structural changes to our society is it's going to change our way of life,” he said. “But if we don't do it, guess what? Climate change will change it for us.”

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