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.

5 thoughts on “Home working and the Rebound Effect

  1. Yes, awareness that leads to individual behavioural change is important, but looking at the big picture, an understanding of the exponential effects of a growing population with a desire for economic growth is key.

    If you and I make concerted efforts to introduce *absolute* energy efficiencies in our lives, there will come a point where we accumulate those savings (in money) and would probably like to spend it on something that requires the consumption of energy! The alternative is to recognise those savings and decide to work less because the lifestyle changes we’ve made have enabled us to do so. By working less, we might then engage in activities that are low energy or low carbon, like gardening or walking, for example. A reduction in working hours and therefore a reduction in earnings would be one way of encouraging/forcing efficiencies and capping the rebound effect somewhat. There was a report which proposed a 21hr working week launched last week: http://www.neweconomics.org/publications/21-hours

    The most comprehensive report on the Rebound Effect was in 2007 by the UK Energy Research Centre: http://www.ukerc.ac.uk/support/tiki-index.php?page=ReboundEffect2

    Drawing from that, I’ve reflected a bit on the Jevons/Rebound Effect over the last few months, most recently here: http://joss.blogs.lincoln.ac.uk/2010/02/12/revisiting-thinking-the-unthinkable/

    I think the point to note is that while we continually make technological efficiencies, they do little more than offset the impact of population and economic growth. It’s led me to believe that unless we radically move away from a model of economic growth and redistribute the existing wealth to poorer countries, there will be no such thing as ‘sustainability’ (or to use Bill Rees’ phrase: we’ll only be “more efficiently unsustainable”. This isn’t as mad as it sounds. If you search for ‘Steady State’ and ‘degrowth’ you’ll find quite a lot of thinking on this subject. Here are two good places to start:

    http://steadystate.org/discover/definition/
    http://www.neweconomics.org/publications/growth-isnt-possible

  2. It would be interesting to see what additional carbon emissions you create by working at home compared to the ‘average’ day i.e. not working. Surely using the computer, using the phone etc. will bump up your electricity use?

    I use an energy monitor for my home to be greener and more energy efficient. Maybe if you used such a device you could see what your home working carbon emissions are.

    Have a look here for more info., this is the one I use http://www.currentcost.com.

  3. Thanks, Paul. I hadn’t seen that paper. It’s referenced in other papers by Alcott, which I am looking at, and can be found here: http://www.blakealcott.org/publications.html As usual, there are differing opinions on how negative an effect, rebound is. Ultimately, I refer to the fact that energy consumption continues to rise, as do emissions, despite our efforts at efficiency. It’s not that the efficiencies aren’t real, but rather they are subservient to economic forces that exploit them negatively, in terms of finite resource use but understands that positively, in terms of growth.

  4. Pingback: Cultural Heritage » Blog Archive » Elsewhere on UKOLN Blogs: February 2010

Comments are closed.