Are ‘green’ household choices a good idea?

Do ‘green’ household choices really make a difference? This is a question I couldn’t quite give a straight answer to, and which provided the motivation to begin research in this area.

The main problem in determining the net environmental impact of consumption choices is the rebound effect. When households reduce their driving or electricity consumption in order to reduce their greenhouse emissions, they save money that ends up being spent elsewhere in the household budget. These other expenses also have environmental impacts. Expressing these offsetting environmental impacts as a fraction of the potential environmental benefits without ‘respending’ gives a measure of the rebound effect.

In order to understand the likely size of the rebound effect I gathered data on the embodied greenhouse gas emissions of consumption goods, and data on household expenditure patterns, matched them up, and estimated a model of the size of the rebound effect for some widely promoted ‘green’ household choices.  One was reducing driving, the other was reducing home electricity consumption.

The main results are

  1. The net environmental benefit of reduced driving is about 25% less once rebound effects are considered.  About 7% less for home electricity.
  2. Higher income households have the lowest rebound effects, and the greatest scope to change consumption patterns.
  3. There is a trade-off between the the cost-saving benefits to the household and environmental benefits.  There are no easy win-win outcomes.
  4. More efficient use of energy, via more energy-efficient vehicles and appliances, is less effective than a conservation strategy of reduced use.
  5. Reducing household income is an effective conservation strategy.
  6. A better strategy for reducing emissions is a direct approach of capping emissions, and/or facilitating cleaner energy generation technology through subsidies or other measures.

Point 5 is often forgotten in the debate.  But it provides a useful way to think about the impact of individual choices, and was even the topic of a whole book. Basically, we consume all that we produce as a society.  So if we spend all day producing, we have to balance that by consuming. And if production involves environmental externalities, then we must cut back on both sides of the ledger for our personal decisions to really make a difference.

However, the important thing is to correct environmental externalities at their source.  Simple, understandable and easily enforced regulations have brought us a long way in the past few decades in this area – our waterways, streets, city air, have been improved through direct environmental regulations.  Improved technology helps, but usually goes hand-in-hand with regulation.

This research endeavour is now summarised in an recently accepted article in Energy Policy.  An earlier version is available here (pdf).

Tips, suggestions, comments and requests to [email protected] + follow me on Twitter @rumplestatskin


  1. our waterways, streets, city air, have been improved through direct environmental regulations.

    Shhh. Don’t tell the libertarians. All regulation is bad.

    • Ahh a libertarian would actually agree that you shouldn’t impose costs including environmental ones on other parties. The problem arises when things are in ‘public ownership’ and you get the tragedy of the commons.
      Take a look at the state of your average public train for example …

      • Take a look at the state of your average public train for example …

        In what country ?

  2. Thanks for posting this Cameron and reminding us of point 5. The Greens have a slogan to try to make people think / win votes: “no economy without environment”, which is clearer to people living in polluted industrial cities in China than here.

    On a practical level I get frustrated comparing the products on the site versus /, ie what’s available in the EU vs here.

    For example, in the EU the most economical car is “VW eco up! BlueMotion Technology” (2.9 L / 100 km, natural gas) or for fridges something in the 400 L fridge/freezer category runs about 203 kWh / year there (MKND 9860) vs 318 kWh / year here (ETM4200SC). The measurement methods for fridges are slightly different but the energy use difference is significant. Europeans seem to have smaller fridges.

    After all that, I might well use the money saved on an overseas trip instead of giving it to an African charity. Time to check out the paper.

    • Yes …. how many of us purchase a new high efficiency fridge to save on power, and then leave the old fridge plugged in to be used as a drink fridge or something similar.
      we are funny animals.:)

      • Bingo.

        Let alone actually calculating the true life cycle energy costs of buying a new fridge to replace a ‘slightly’ less efficient one.

    • The measurement methods for fridges are slightly different but the energy use difference is significant. Europeans seem to have smaller fridges.

      I believe one reason for this is, as we discovered living in Switzerland (and visiting France, Italy & Germany), they tend to shop for food every day or two, and buy only what they expected to need for meals in that timeframe.

      We were a bit dismayed by the small fridge when we first arrived in Switzerland (probably 2/3 the size of the one we have now here in Oz, and barely 1/2 the size of the one we had in America), but after adjusting our food purchasing habits – strongly encouraged by the lack of a car and thus the ability to easily transport a week’s worth of food at once – we found it to be quite adequate.

      Here in Australia (and also generally in the US and UK in my experience) people tend to do a large shop once a week – sometimes every two weeks – and thus have a much greater need for refrigeration. Another consequence of that is the greater need for preservatives, etc, in our food – even “fresh” food.

      I must confess I do miss the icemaker in the American fridge, however. 🙂

      • Weekly and fortnightly shopping was also “invented” to increase food consumption by increasing food waste. That is one of the reasons why food waste is bigger in countries with these shopping habits.

      • Diogenes the CynicMEMBER

        How small was this fridge? Are you talking about say 200L or smaller?

        My household uses 1 400L fridge for 4 persons. It can easily hold enough food for 10 days. Some of our peers have two fridges that are bigger than our single fridge, always permanently on.

        • I couldn’t say – I don’t even know how big ours is off the top of my head (will check when I get home) since we inherited it (someone presumably rorting their insurance left it on the street after the Brisbane floods) rather than bought it. From eyeballing some pictures on websites I’d guesstimate it was probably around the 200-250 mark and our American one was around the 650-700 mark and our current one is around the 450-500 mark.

          We could comfortably put enough stuff in our Swiss one for the two of us for a week, though it would look rather full after doing so, especially with a six pack or two of beers and a couple of bottles of wine in there. The real annoyance was that the freezer wasn’t frost-free, and thus required everything to be taken for a defrosting a few times a year. That and it was built-in to the cupboard, which I _hate_.

          Bear in mind this was an adjustment from a relatively large fridge where we’d normally have (at least) a carton of beer, a dozen or more cans of soft drink, a few bottles of wine, a few bottles of fruit juice, zillions of jars/bottles of condiments, etc, in it, before even getting to the actual “food” (plus several loaves of bread, a few ice cube trays, beef, chicken, etc, in the freezer).

  3. I believe the most effective way to live ‘green’ is to buy locally produced food. By buying locally we avoid the environmental impact that comes with shipping food from overseas. Also we can choose foods that have not been produced using pesticides or herbicides and is free of genetic modification. Further the nutritional value of food produced locally is greater than that of food that has spent a week in a container on a ships deck – this may improve health and lead to smaller dr bills.

    I think we need to be spending more on better quality food and eat less of it. Kind of like using premium petrol in the car rather than regular unleaded.

    • Unless the food is produced more efficiently overseas even including the ‘shipping costs’.
      Meat being exported to Europe is a case in point, housing all those animals in barns over winter doesn’t come cheap.

      You may have heard of a recent invention called snap freezing. Thus frozen vegetables hold a far higher % of their original nutrient content, than fresh veges ever will. Trucking distances, esp. in Aussie are also long you know.

        • Of course if a series of unforeseen calamities took places, we may be very grateful for local food production…but it won’t be cheap!

        • Unfortunately this article to me is complete and utter BS.

          The first thing it does is frame the question to say that all small scale farming is just a replica of big modern agriculture.

          Modern agriculture is so primitive it defies belief. It is mining by another name. Dig up some phosphate, potash, natural gas (nitrogen) and oil (pesticides and herbicides), throw it on a field and sprinkle some seed. Add water.

          It is the very definition of inefficiency and unsustainability, as 100 units of energy are required to make 1 unit of food energy. It is only so seeming productive because of a ridiculous amount of external inputs that go into it. The mining/drilling orgy that fuels it will not go on forever.

          In contrast, small scale agriculture that is based in a perennial poly-culture (as opposed to annual mono-cultures advocated as “modern”) is vastly more productive, and requires next to no maintenance or external inputs. THAT is true small scale farming and it is incredibly more efficient that modern agribusiness.

      • Efficiency in food production is a poorly understood concept. People often don’t take into account all the costs and subsidies. It might be deemed more efficient to produce grain in China or the USA, but their production methods are questionable given the serious amount of chemical fertilisers and pesticides used. The destruction of arable land in China is a key driver of their purchasing large tracts of land in Oz.

  4. “Green” is a smoke screen, a con, a lie, a scam. Not that I don’t think we need to do something. I just think we’re doing the wrong things. We collectively reduce our (insert whatever current trend term) carbon output by 10% and over the next three years increase population by the same 10%…How ridiculous can we get?

    • How ridiculous can we get?

      Taking the same population increase (which is largely inevitable) _without_ making any other reductions ?

      • Population increase inevitable? So the environment’s important but not important enough to compromise “economic growth”…..Like I said, “Green” is a scam.

        • Population increase inevitable?
          Worldwide population is expected to peak in a few decades, but that’s a few decades away, and there’s no quick and easy solutions to do it sooner.

          So the environment’s important but not important enough to compromise “economic growth”…..Like I said, “Green” is a scam.
          This is what’s called a non-sequitur.

          • “Worldwide population is expected to peak in a few decades”

            That’s got nothing to do with “population increase” in Australia. We do not have to take even one of those 80 million extra people a year….In fact by doing so we’re exacerbating the global problem

            How is my statement a non-sequitur? Government and green groups make it seem like what we’re doing for the environment will fix it. With more and more people, all it’s doing is reducing the decline to inevitable destruction. That is a mathematical fact.

          • That’s got nothing to do with “population increase” in Australia. We do not have to take even one of those 80 million extra people a year….
            So should we slam the door on all immigration ? Is this going to be like a nightclub curfew – once you go out you can’t get back in ?

            In any event, haven’t the various racial purity/breeding bribes put local birth rates up above replacement anyway ?

            Government and green groups make it seem like what we’re doing for the environment will fix it.
            I’m not aware of either suggesting what we’re doing will “fix” anything. Slow down the decline, maybe, but certainly not “fix”.

            I think you’ll find most “Green groups” are in favour of lower population, as well.

        • “So should we slam the door on all immigration ?”

          Absolutely by a thousand times the best thing we could do for our kids and the environment. Doubling Australia’s population with three months global population increase (another twenty million) is the dumbest thing we will ever do. It makes no sense no matter how it’s looked at. Even from an economic perspective. What do we do to stimulate once we’re 50 million? We should be saving for our retirements.

    • “over the next three years increase population by 10%”? You cannot make any direct comparison except the overly simplistic as “population” has many qualitative variables. For example international students who are included in population via NOM via 12/16 rule generally have a much lower footprint than larger number of short term tourists with former exemplified by no cars, walking/PT, sharing accommodation, food, bills etc. as opposed to intensive travel, short term accommodation etc. Further, this would imply any Australian citizen abroad for more than 12/16 months would not be welcome back as they too are included in the NOM equation?

  5. It is impossible to turn “sustainable” or create “environmental friendly economy” without getting away from “endless growth consumer economy”.
    If we keep the system intact and change behaviour we might slightly change timing of self-destruction process but not the final catastrophic result (and here I’m not talking about global warming).

    It is impossible to change system without getting rid of conspicuous consumption, “keep up with the Joneses”, hoarding, and other “psychological conditions” fuelled by mainstream media.

    The only way of becoming “environmentally friendly” is to create “steady state economy”. Western societies already reached high level of technological development (enough to satisfy all physical needs for everybody) and population saturation. This makes “zero growth” logical way forward.

    • Diogenes the CynicMEMBER

      Right on a steady state economy could work but sadly would not be able to pay off all of the lovely amounts of debt we have accumulated. Steady state has massive implications for government spending pensions etc, the only way to pay off debt is through growth which is why all the politicians parrot growth every chance they get.

  6. You are a commited greenie Cameron and I salute you for that. However for me, I believe that the average person resists changing their lifestyle and usually when there is a choice between the envirment and lifestyle, the enviroment misses out.

    I’m a big believer in technological change to make a difference in reducing electricity useage, so for me it’s solar cells, LED lighting, smarter lighting, better designed homes, insulation, and a host of small changes that start in the home and car for the average person.

    We do what we can.

    • “usually when there is a choice between the envirment and lifestyle, the enviroment misses out.”

      there is no choice – that is the problem

      if we change the system away from consumption, lifestyle would improve (more time would be left for life and for style).

      unfortunately that choice is not available

      we have to work more to consume more and consume more to work more

    • Since I first came across the album of the same name as a teenager the phrase ‘Give me convenience or give me death’ has acted a a concise summary of the attitude I’ve noticed that many have towards life. This has seemed to be especially so for the adoption of green measures and healthy lifestyles. Most of us will just follow the path of least resistance and many will complain if their usual path is blocked for any reason at all, regardless of the merits of blocking it off. This may be why I hold a pessimistic view towards things ‘working out for the best’ or letting market forces solely find the best solution for any of the really big societal problems.

  7. Cam, what are you saying exactly! It seems a combination of reduced use and lower incomes the more effective measures – but “what” are you trying to limit and why?

    • Actually it can be any externality associated with production processes, but the data I used was for greenhouse gas emissions.

      You can imagine someone who becomes vegetarian to reduce the land degradation from grazing cattle. However, since they aren’t spending money on meat, they will spend it on something else, and that something else probably causes some kind of land degradation. You simply can’t know whether your actions are effective at all.

      If land degradation (in whatever particular form is relevant to an area – salinity etc) is your problem, them incentives to preserve land quality by those involved is the answer. That can take many forms, but by suggestion was very simple regulatory rules. But it could include a combination of regulatory rules and subsidies to help adopt new technologies/techniques.

      If you personally want to reduce externalities from production process, and have no power to change the processes themselves, shifting consumption from one thing to another is unlikely to be much help. Imagine a driver from a coal mine who goes home and then consumes in an ‘green’ way to reduce his person greenhouse gas emissions. Well he can’t really, since he is still producing the eternality when he works (indirectly).

      However, if he worked half as much, he could only consume half as much, and if another person worked the other half of his previous hours, then total output of the economy would fall (since the other person is not doing what they used to), and so would the externalities associated with production processes economy wide.

      Maybe it wasn’t clear, but as a society as a whole we should look to environmental problems at their source. This must be done at the appropriate scale – no use introducing fishing quotas in international waters if not everyone is abiding by them. Changing individual work and consumption decisions is the least effective way to ‘act on an issue’.

      • Thanks – confirmed what I first thought – I like the way you take something where generally consensus is settled (be various experts and afficianados) turn it upside down, look at the evidence and repackage with a twist. This methodology needs be adopted by analysts everywhere.

          • rob barrattMEMBER

            Nice find 3D1K. I did a physics, chemistry and Geology combined degree many years ago and I have always suspected what I now read here. Fixing carbon dioxide is a classic case of eco-nonsense. CO2 doesn’t lend itself to be dissolved or locked into chemical bonds unless it is by a solution (eg. caustic soda) that itself takes a great deal of energy & pollution to produce.

            Thermodynamics acts overwhelmingly in one direction – energy release through the breakup of complex organic chemicals into simpler substances. It doesn’t readily lend itself to working the other way around, except in the slow moving world of photosynthetic chemistry and very rare instances of endothermic reactions.

            Add all this to the fact that a huge percentage of Australians voluntarily have more than 2 children and drive large heavy vehicles, even though a relatively rich society offers them “greener” alternatives…

            I’m not an optimist, but then, no-one suggested that evolution existed for the benefit of Homo Sapiens. Insects and bacteria are looking like winning formulae right now.

          • Rob,
            There’s always photosynthesis I guess. Nature seemed to come up with that by itself without a carbon tax and various other schemes invented by pollies.

          • Rumple:

            Please do not give 3d1k credit for anything. Ever.

            As you know, he is a foot soldier for the mining and fossil fuel lobby. It is his job to spread misinformation and doubt about alternatives to fossil fuels. You are not dealing with someone who is expressing genuine honest opinions. You are dealing with a ruthless advocate for the status quo and he should always be treated as such.

            He has linked to this piece at The Automatic Earth several times. What’s interesting is that Nicole Foss is essentially a Peak Oil doomer. Her view is that fossil fuels are a one-off short-lived bonanza that can never be replaced by alternative energy sources. Once fossil fuels decline, humanity is destined to endure a grim low-energy future, from which there is no escape.

            Obviously, using fossil fuels at an ever increasing rate is not a solution to the problems Foss foresees, and yet 3d1k is using her criticisms of renewables — many of which are valid — to support the view that any attempt to replace fossil fuels is futile.

            Above you congratulate him for cutting the spin, and approaching the issue with honestly, when in reality he is doing precisely the opposite.

            Ban him.

          • Lorax, is 2013 your personal Year of the Dictator?

            I’ve met Foss, found her very engaging and am prepared to listen to her views. She was one of the few early and more importantly accurate advisers on Fukushima (nuclear science background).

            Your journey down the fossil fuel diversion path is amusing but truth is we will continue to exploit fossil fuels until affordable efficient alternatives are readily available – honest and pragmatic!

            It confounds you that I am not easily pigeon-holed into one of your neatly labelled boxes – I am a free thinker. Sometimes right and sometimes wrong. Try it.

      • ” … no use introducing fishing quotas in international waters if not everyone is abiding by them.”
        I saw this in action during Adelaide’s water restrictions during the drought. I live in leafy, affluent eastern suburbs of Adelaide (where there is very little neighbourliness or kindness, but that is another story). I suspect about half of the residents in my area ignored the restrictions, especially in back yards, but there were also plenty of verdant nature strips, which were not supposed to be watered at all, but many of the strips are incorporated into the designer gardens they abut. Some people had bore or recycled water delivered by truck, which meant they didn’t contravene the restrictions, but there were many who appeared to conclude the restrictions didn’t apply to them.
        I would love to have seen water consumption figures for individual households. The meters couldn’t cheat (aside from the determined few who might tamper with their meter).

        While an international fishing quota might be difficult to police, putting a quota on consumption of metered goods such as water, electricity, gas should be workable. Those who choose to consume extravagantly buy from those who choose to be frugal, which makes frugality a tradeable commodity.

      • Rumples…thank you!
        “we consume all that we produce as a society” Actually of course in Australia and most of the western world we consume a damned side more than we produce. As a world of course you are correct.
        It is my argument that our negative RAT rate, unlimited debt, generated lifestyle is THE major cause of pollution and over-use of world resources.I get a lot of flack for the idea!!! 🙂

        I think if we restored some balance there most of your points are pretty well covered.

        P.S. The ‘greenest’ thing you can do for your house is to throw out the air-conditioner and put in overhead fans.

        • Right you are Flawse. And as per the comments of Raveswei and Diogenes the Cynic above, any solution surely begs looking first at “steady state” economy ideas.

          And to achieve that (“steady state”), it is my firm view that you must first eliminate the exponential debt/”growth”/consumption model.

          And to do that … you must first eliminate the power / incentive for banksters to create and lend “money” / digits out of thin air, for their own profit (and power).

          Ban Usury. Problem Solved.

  8. Rumple,

    Just thinking about this again…

    Is your contention analologically similar to what I like to call “The Low-Fat Problem”?

    ie. people buy “low-fat” processed foods, concerned for their health and waistlines, and then end up consuming extra volumes of the “light” product, such that their intakes can be comparable to what they were consuming prior to switching from the “full-fat” product?


    • Similar. If you take calories as a budget, then reducing high fat intake means increasing low fat. The terms rebound effect is also used in psychology to explain certain types of behavioural compensation.

    • Nice book recommendation 🙂

      The beginning of its review on that link is IMO the core of the problem: people believe what they are told when the most superficial examination would lead any critical person to ask the questions such as that book addresses.

      So why did our grandparents (and my parents and me) see these things and the masses not?

      Greed? Selfishness? Ignorance?

  9. Nice article and a great introduction to this topic for those who are fresh to its analysis. Metrics such as GHG emissions and land degradation are also good to put into a more holistic exploration of the topic. I also liked the rebound effect being included, as nature abhors a vacume as they say.

    Other externalities that should also be included are things such as “what are the impacts of dealing with chemicals disposed of into sewerage as part of water treatment”. This is just a for instance.

    Material flow analysis is a good tool as (in my opinion) is Urban Metabolism.

    On the subject of rebound effect I can honestly report that in our household that savings liberated by reduction and transportation savings (walking, cycling, motor scooter) were directly placed into savings and not retasked.

    I realise we are an outlier on the data set

  10. What is the point in reducing any emmissions per head when the heads continue to multiply every day

  11. Thanks for the post Cam. Some thoughts:

    – Fuel consumption numbers quoted for cars are basically useless. I use the same fuel per km now driving a modern car with a small engine than I did 20 years ago, simply because the amount of traffic and controlled intersections where I live has gone through the roof and I have to stop-start drive.
    – Our desire to build bigger houses simply means we fill them with more junk. I can’t believe how much we’ve chucked out of our house this past week. Smaller house, less consumption – it would have to be a very strong relationship. “Great storage” simply means more places to put unused cr*p.
    – It’s a really interesting point you make about targeting higher incomes, basically the uber-consumers.
    – I’m going to keep heteroskedasticity up my sleeve for the next game of Scrabble. 🙂

    • Really the full cost of a consumable product food or otherwise should be embedded in the cost. This should include disposal and environmental spillover.

      Single-use or limited use non-degradable plastics would be the easiest one to hit first – nothing but sheer toadying of our political classes to their corporate masters stops this.

      • Plastic shopping bags, at least of the sort handed out at checkouts, should be just simply banned!
        I suppose from another viewpoint they should cost 5$ each minimum.
        Hehe soft drinks water etc…add $5/litre for the plastic bottle!

  12. There is no end of trivial green solutions endorsed by the captains of industry, and which they love to see the discussion linger on. The tough stuff – dealing with new sewage of plastics and chemicals; dealing with deforestation and ecological destruction; reducing carbon in the atmosphere – are hard. Seriously seriously hard.

    Look back to what the bays and beaches of Australia were like just 100 yrs ago – our collective delusion on what needs to be done and what can be done is staggering.