Rebound effects from a social-ecological perspective
The Federal Ministry of Education and Research will fund nine collaborative research projects on rebound effects under the Research for Sustainable Development (FONA) framework programme. It aims to generate knowledge about the management of rebound effects and draw conclusions regarding the measures needed to contain these effects and reduce the consumption of resources substantially and on a lasting basis. The funding measure forms part of the Federal Government's Green Economy Research Agenda.
Limiting the consumption of resources (including energy) is a major prerequisite for sustainable development. This is why increasing resource efficiency is considered a key factor for achieving sustainability. However, the measures and programmes intended to increase energy and resource efficiency often do not deliver the expected results with regard to a reduction of resource consumption. A cause which is often mentioned in this context is the rebound effect. The term is used to describe a situation where changes in user behaviour reduce the expected gains from new technologies or even increase resource consumption (backfire). This means that efficient production techniques and new resource-efficient technologies are not enough to ensure that resources are managed sustainably.
Experts are largely agreed on the existence of this problem. The importance of the rebound effect has been increasingly highlighted in the more recent past. Numerous theoretical and empirical studies have meanwhile been conducted, particularly referring to energy efficiency.
But further research is needed. Only the direct relationship between energy efficiency gains with new products and the increased energy demand at the (micro)level of private households and consumers (direct rebound effect) has been fairly well studied. There are few findings to date on the rebound effects at company and production level. Only rough estimates are available, if at all published, regarding the macroeconomic impact of rebound effects. Knowledge is also lacking about the indirect rebound effects of efficiency increases. Such indirect effects may be felt at the microlevel when consumers spend the income gained on other resource-consuming goods as well as at macrolevel when efficiency gains stimulate additional resource-consuming economic growth.
The purpose of funding research projects is to generate application-oriented findings which improve our understanding of rebound effects. In addition to explaining the effects, the projects are expected to recommend suitable measures for containing them. The aim should be to point the way towards a resource-efficient green economy from the perspective of society-based sustainability research. Research findings are to be delivered which provide political decision-makers in particular with instruments for achieving the sustainability goals.