Friday, July 17, 2020

How Large is the Economy-Wide Rebound Effect?


Last year, I published a blogpost about our research on the economy-wide rebound effect. The post covers the basics of what the rebound effect is and presents our results. We found that energy efficiency improvements do not save energy. In other words, the rebound effect is 100%. This doesn't mean that improving energy efficiency is a bad thing. It's a good thing, because consumers get more energy services as a result. But it probably doesn't help the environment very much.

I now have a new CAMA working paper, which surveys the literature on this question. Contributions to the literature are broadly theoretical or quantitative. Theory provides some guidance on the factors affecting rebound but does not impose much constraint on the range of possible responses. There aren't very many econometric studies. Most quantitative studies are either calculations using previously estimated parameters and variables or simulations.

Theory shows that the more substitutable other inputs are for energy in production the greater the rebound effect. This means that demand for energy services by producers is more elastic and so reducing the unit costs of energy services increases the amount used by more.

The most comprehensive theoretical examination of the question is Derek Lemoine's new paper in the European Economic Review: "General Equilibrium Rebound from Energy Efficiency Innovation." Lemoine provides the first mathematically consistent analysis of general equilibrium rebound, where all prices across the economy can adjust to a change in energy efficiency in a specific production sector. He shows that the elasticity of substitution in consumption plays the same role as the elasticity of substitution in production: the greater the elasticity, the greater the rebound, ceteris paribus.

Beyond that, the predictions of the model depend on parameter values. The most likely case, assuming a weak response labor to changes in the wage rate, is that the general equilibrium effects increase energy use relative to the partial equilibrium direct rebound effect for energy intensive sectors and reduce it for labor intensive sectors.

Lemoine uses his framework and previously estimated elasticities and other parameters to compute the rebound to an economy-wide energy efficiency improvement in the US. The result is 38%. There are two main reasons why the real rebound might be higher than this. First, most of the elasticities of substitution in production that he uses are quite low because of how they were estimated. Second, an energy efficiency improvement in any sector apart from the energy supply sector does not trigger a fall in the price of energy. A fall in the price of energy would boost rebound. This is because there are no fixed inputs and there are constant returns to scale in energy production.

There are similar issues with simulations from computable general equilibrium models (CGE). The assumptions that modellers make and the parameter values they choose make a huge difference to the results. Depending on these choices, any result from super-conservation, where more energy is saved than the energy efficiency improvement alone would save, to backfire, where energy use increases, is possible.

Rausch and Schwerin estimate the rebound using a small general equilibrium model calibrated to US data. This is somewhere between the typical CGE model and econometric models. They use the putty-clay approach to measuring and modeling energy efficiency. Increases in the price of energy relative to capital are 100% translated into improvements in the energy efficiency of new capital equipment. Once capital is installed, energy and capital must be used in fixed proportions. Rebound in this model depends on why the relative price changes. If the price of energy rises, energy use falls. However, if the price of capital falls energy use increases. These are very strong assumptions, which determine how the data are interpreted. Are they realistic? Rausch and Schwerin find that historically rebound has been around 100% in the US.

>Historical evidence also hints that the economy-wide rebound effect could be near 100%. Energy intensity in developing countries today isn't lower than it was in the developed countries when they were at the same level of income. This is despite huge gains in energy efficiency in all kinds of technologies from lighting to car engines. This makes sense if consumers have shifted to more energy intensive consumption goods and services over time. Commuters and tourists on trains in the 19th and early 20th centuries have been replaced by commuters and tourists in cars and on planes in the late 20th and early 21st centuries.

I only found three fully empirical econometric analyses. One of them is our own paper. The others are by Adetutu et al. (2016) and Orea et al. (2015). Both use stochastic production frontiers to estimate energy efficiency. This is a potentially promising approach. Adetutu et al. then model the effect of this energy efficiency one energy use, using an autoregressive model. This includes the lagged value of energy use as an explanatory variable, which means that the long-run effect of all variables is greater in absolute value than the short-run effect. As in the short run, energy efficiency reduces energy use, in the long run it reduces it even more. The result is super-conservation even though short-run rebound is 90%. In Orea et al.'s model, the purely stochastic inefficiency term is multiplied by [1-R(γ'z)] where z is a vector of variables including GDP per capita, the price of energy, and average household size. R(γ'z) is then supposed to be an estimate of the rebound effect. But really this is just a reformulation of the inefficiency term – nothing specifically identifies R(γ'z) as the rebound effect.

In conclusion, the economy-wide rebound effect might be near 100%. But I wouldn't describe the evidence as conclusive. Both our research and the historical investigations might be missing some important factor that has moved energy use in a way that makes us think it is due to changes in energy efficiency, and Rausch and Schwerin make very strong assumptions about analysing the data.

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