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Scientists cast doubts on energy efficient technologies


19th June, 2009

Our attempts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by using more efficient technology might be doomed to at least partial failure, say scientists.

The notion of the ‘rebound effect’, whereby more efficient products simply make it cheaper to use more energy, produce more goods, or generate spare cash to buy other products, was originally proposed in 1865.

But now experts believe that the little studied effect may mean that energy efi ciency initiatives will be less effective at tackling global warming than was anticipated.

Terry Barker of Cambridge University’s Centre for Climate Change Mitigation Research, presented results at a seminar in May showing that, by 2030, the rebound effect could halve the benefi ts of the energy-efi ciency savings predicted by the International Energy Agency (IEA). The bulk of the ‘rebound’ would occur in residential and commercial buildings, his results suggested.

He concluded that energy efficiency is, and always has been, a driving force behind economic growth.

In a presentation at the same event, Steve Sorrell of Sussex University warned that although rebound effects could be mitigated by effective policy – such as introducing laws to reduce the level of power consumption for products on standby – they nevertheless raise ‘fundamental issues’ with regards to growth and sustainability.

Just four days later, a new report from the IEA indicated that unless measures were introduced to deal with the rising energy consumption from electronic gadgets, it would triple by 2030. Although electronic devices currently account for only 15 per cent of domestic electricity consumption, the fi gure is rising as a result of growing demand in the less-industrialised world.

The IEA report, Gadgets and Gigawatts, is enthusiastic that energy-saving technologies could help mitigate the rise in demand. But Doug Parr, chief scientist at Greenpeace, told the Guardian: ‘You can’t just deploy new technology and hope it’ll get you out of trouble. I get the sense that policymakers don’t understand it fully.’


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