Home working and the Rebound Effect

Ever heard of the rebound effect? I wasn’t aware of the term until a colleague of mine, Paul Shabajee, mentioned it.

Paul is currently working on Greening Events, a new JISC project exploring how event organisers can effectively balance the need to minimise the sustainability footprint of an event with the need for organisations and individuals to still get the most from the events. Sounds familiar? Yes, it touches on many of the ideas we had for our Green ICT bid. I’m just glad some work has been funded in this area. I hope to work more with Paul in the future and will be twisting his arm to write a few blog posts for Ramblings.

Wikipedia defines the rebound effect, also known as the take-back effect or Jevons Paradox, when used in conservation and energy economics as “the behavioral or other systemic responses to the introduction of new technologies, or other measures taken to reduce resource use. These responses tend to offset the beneficial effects of the new technology or other measures taken.

A more modern analysis of this phenomenon is the Khazzoom–Brookes postulate theory which argues that increased energy efficiency paradoxically tends to lead to increased energy consumption.

The rebound effect was first proposed by William Stanley Jevons, an English economist and logician of the 19th century.

In his 1865 book The Coal Question Jevons theorized that improving the efficiency at which energy was produced would reduce energy costs and as a result increase rather than decrease energy use and consumption of coal. Time has proved him correct and the rebound effect is one area of climate change theory that remains uncontroversial.

A useful analogy is provided by Green Living tips.

A good example of a type of rebound effect that many of us could relate to is low fat ice cream. Since it is low fat, we’re tempted to eat more – just a little, because it’s OK as we’re still consuming less fat than we would from full cream ice cream. However, what we forget is that most low-fat ice cream is chock full of sugar; not to mention through eating more that means more raw products are used, more packaging and so forth.

Paul and I had a interesting chat about the rebound effect and working from home. Here’s a few thoughts:

  • Working from home means I use the car less. I tend to stay in my house during my working day, maybe with a short trip to the local shops. This can leave me feeling a little stir crazy and on my days off I feel the need to get out-and-about so often end up driving more.
  • Occasionally I’ll drive somewhere in my lunch-hour, something I probably wouldn’t have done had I been parked in a work car-park.
  • Being green and not driving as much means that I feel I have the right to leave my heating on all day (this isn’t always the case but has been for much of this winter!)
  • It’s quite possible that an institution feels it is doing “its bit” by employing remote workers and so allows itself a little slack in other areas.
  • Working from home can save some people a huge amount of time. The time saved may allow them to take new trips.
  • Now I have my PC set up at home I tend to work more, I use my PC more, I use my printer more and I use my modem more. They are all electrical items I would previously have had switched off in the evenings.
  • For some people working from home may mean that others have to make further trips to visit them, trips that wouldn’t have had to take place if the other person worked in the main office.
  • The use of video conferencing and amplified conference technologies may well mean that more people now ‘attend’ and have meetings. They often represent extra meetings rather than ones that replace meetings people would need to travel to. ICT use is increasing all the time.
  • People need to ‘travel’ (by this I mean a change in surroundings) a certain amount for their own personal sanity. Saving ourselves time by better travel systems just means that we travel further. Apparently average travel time has not changed for at least 30 years and remains constant at an hour a day. The Myth of Travel Time Saving explores this idea further.

A blog post in last year’s Guardian entitled Does teleworking really cut emissions? suggests that home working isn’t the quick fix many would like us to believe it is. I personally believe it has a big role to play in reducing carbon emissions (and so do many others – too many to list here). It could potentially be a big chunk of a climate carbon wedge. The key is that we are aware of the rebound effect so we can minimise its impact.

I’d be interested to hear what other people think.