By Dave Anderson:
Useful hydrocarbon fuels allows mechanized societies and individuals to trade embedded heat for time, distance and effort. Cheap gasoline has encouraged American suburbanization for the past sixty years, cheap coal encouraged the British Industrial Revoluation. Accessible peat pushed the Dutch to industrialize. And as technology allows a fuel to be used more efficiently, it tends to get used more because it is quite useful and now cheaper per unit of trade-off.
The key question for optimists who expect technological saviors to the carbon sink crisis is whether or not the empircal reality that more efficient carbon burning processes will lead to lower carbon emissions for the same or more trade-offs. Brad Plumer asks this question :
There�s a long-standing debate among energy wonks over what�s known as the �rebound effect.� The idea, simply put, is that trying to boost energy efficiency might prove counterproductive if people just take advantage of the savings by using even more energy. So, for example, if a person buys a Prius, there�s a possibility that he or she could just negate much of the fuel savings by driving more....
new research from Shakeb Afsah and Kendyl Salcito of CO2Scorecard suggests that the rebound effect might not be a huge concern for fuel-efficient cars after all. The two compared a sample of 4,208 Prius owners in California against 4.8 million other drivers in the state. And what they found is that Prius drivers only drive, on average, about 0.5 percent more per year.
This makes sense as the cost of gasoline is not the dominant cost of driving. The IRS gives a deduction of 55.5 cents per mile in 2012. That 55.5 cents is broken down into depreciation (23 cents per mile), maitenance, insuance and fuel. The fuel component breaks down to 17 cents or so per mile. The one big cost that the IRS does not allow people to deduct is the value of their time. If we assume that the average American values their time at 38 cents per minute (given average US wage per BLS), and average speed is about 30 miles per hour, the total cost of driving a mile is $1.30. A reduction of a few pennies per mile due to efficiency won't significantly change behavior.