Is there a rebound effect from reducing crime?

Over the years, EiD has had several posts relating to the rebound effect relating to energy efficiency. This is the first one that links the rebound effect to lowering crime. Tatiana Schlossberg provides an interesting article on this topic in the New York Times.

 

How Lowering Crime Could Contribute to Global Warming

It sounds simple: If something has a big carbon footprint and you get rid of it, you eliminate those carbon dioxide emissions. Right?

But it’s not always that easy. In a recent study published in The Journal of Industrial Ecology, researchers at the Center for Environmental Strategy at the University of Surrey in England estimated the annual carbon footprint of crime in England and Wales, and found that reducing crime could actually cause society’s overall carbon footprint of society to increase.

The findings illustrated the rebound effect, which describes how reducing the emissions of greenhouse gases in one area can lead to more emissions in the aggregate, because of direct or indirect effects. It’s something that policy makers have often been encouraged to consider when they set out to reduce emissions.

Crime is one example where a rebound in carbon emissions could be an issue, according to this study. While there is an energy cost to operating prisons, the study notes, inmates generally consume less than an average citizen in the country, so fewer prisoners might mean higher overall energy consumption.

Additionally, the money saved from reducing crime would go into the government’s budget and people’s pockets. All that money could be spent in other ways — infrastructure, buildings or goods — that may require more energy to produce or operate, possibly adding more greenhouse gases to the atmosphere.

Although there is a lot of uncertainty in calculating the rebound effect, the researchers tried to quantify the consequences of reducing domestic burglary by about 5 percent, and determined a rebound effect of 2 percent. That may sound small, but it would mean a growth in society’s overall carbon footprint equivalent to about 10,000 tons of carbon dioxide, which is similar to the annual emissions of about 2,250 households in the Britain.

It’s more common to hear about rebound effects when it comes to certain areas of energy policy, like cars: If a car is more energy efficient, some scientists say, people may drive more, possibly leading to more fuel consumption overall.

Alan Meier, a senior scientist at the Department of Energy’s Berkeley Lab who studies behavior and energy consumption, notes that even as electronic appliances become more efficient, people often have more of them, which may also drive up energy use.

“But numerous studies have demonstrated that rebound effects are small and the energy savings dominate,” Dr. Meier said.

Other scientists agree, saying that fears of rebound effects are often overblown, and are a distraction from sensible energy policy.

In a 2013 study published in Nature, environmental economists argued that consumer behavior may prune between 5 percent and 30 percent off intended energy savings —- possibly reaching as high as 60 percent in some cases when larger economic forces are taken into account — but doesn’t negate the savings altogether.

The issue can be overwhelming. The science is complicated. We get it. This is your cheat sheet.

Kenneth Gillingham, one of the authors of that study and a professor of economics at the Yale School of Forestry, said that studying the carbon footprint and rebound effects of crime was “unusual,” but it may help us to better understand the society we live in.

However, “there are probably also productivity effects of reducing crime that lead to more economic growth and more welfare, which may lead to greater energy use and emissions,” Dr. Gillingham said.

In the new study, the scientists compared the rebound effect with the one associated with the backup energy sources required for offshore wind energy, or other renewable sources. Since the amount of wind fluctuates, it doesn’t generate the same amount of energy all the time, so a backup system, often powered by fossil fuels, is needed.

And while the researchers expressed concern about the rebound effects of reducing crime — and where the money saved from reducing crime would be spent — they conclude that it’s important to raise awareness of the environmental costs of crime, and incorporate this in overall policy, though it may be “unrealistic to expect police and criminals to consider their carbon footprint.”

Indeed.

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