Who co-opted our energy efficiency gains? A sociology of macro-level rebound effects and US car makers

Rebound effects occur when energy efficiency upgrades lead to less energy saving than anticipated, compromising CO2 emission reduction. Studies of micro-level rebounds frequently emphasise human agents' personal responsibility in causing or facilitating these rebounds. Studies of macro-level rebounds tend to focus instead on autonomous, depersonalised mechanisms through which energy efficiency increases lead to increased consumption of energy services, often via social structural changes. This leaves out the role of powerful human actors facilitating these structural changes and often reaping rich rewards for doing so. Here I depart from existing rebound effect approaches, drawing on Giddens’ structuration theory to offer a sociological account of how macro-level rebound effects occur. I argue that well-resourced actors co-opt energy efficiency increases to provide new or enhanced CO2-producing goods and services while fostering public desire for these and lobbying vigorously against tighter CO2 emissions standards. Hence these rebounds result from the actions of powerful actors manipulating social structure for personal or corporate reward. I illustrate this with the empirical example of macro-level rebound effects in the US car industry, also employing a radical departure from traditional rebound effect approaches. I argue that policymakers need to take the actions of these powerful individuals more seriously. © 2020 Elsevier Ltd

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