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In a new opinion piece for the New York Times, Breakthrough cofounders Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus comment on the recent bestowment of the 2014 Nobel Prize in Physics to the trio of researchers whose work led to the creation of light-emitting diodes, or LEDs. Shellenberger and Nordhaus commend the researchers for their scientific achievements, but caution against the idea that LEDs will significantly reduce energy consumption, as touted by the Royal Swedish Academy in the award presentation. Shellenberger and Nordhaus conclude:

Energy efficiency rebound and backfire are not bad things. Most people in the world, still struggling to achieve modern living standards, need to consume more energy, not less. Cheap LED and other more efficient energy technologies will be overwhelmingly positive for people and economies all over the world.

But LED and other ultra-efficient lighting technologies are unlikely to play a significant role in reducing global energy consumption or reducing carbon emissions. If we are to make a serious dent in carbon emissions, there is no escaping the need to shift to cleaner sources of energy supply.

Read the full New York Times opinion piece here. Below are links to other key Breakthrough writings, including a new report that offers three case studies of energy efficiency rebound. For general information on Breakthrough, please visit our About page.


Lighting, Electricity, Steel, a 2014 report on three historical case studies of energy efficiency rebound

Energy Emergence, a 2011 review of the literature on direct and indirect energy efficiency rebound and backfire

Our High-Energy Planet, a 2014 report on a pragmatic framework for higher energy consumption in developing countries

Frequently Asked Questions About Rebound

The Limitations of Energy Efficiency as Climate Strategy

Alex Trembath, "IEA Acknowledges Rebound Effects," 10/6/14

Michael Shellenberger, Ted Nordhaus, and Jesse Jenkins, "Energy Efficiency: Beware of Overpromises," 5/28/13

Breakthrough Staff, "World Energy Agency Exaggerates Climate Potential of Efficiency," 4/18/13

Breakthrough Staff, "Amory Lovins's Efficiency Fantasy," 2/22/13

Jesse Jenkins and Alex Trembath, "CO2 Scorecard Misses the Point (Again) on Rebound and Efficiency," 3/20/12

Solving Global Warming Through Clean Energy Innovation

Where Good Technologies Come From, a 2010 report on the critical role of the federal government for innovation and technology

Beyond Boom and Bust, a 2012 report on freeing clean energy from subsidy dependence

Rising Tigers, Sleeping Dragon, a 2009 report on the clean energy competitiveness of the US, China, Japan, and South Korea

How to Make Nuclear Cheap, a 2013 report on the economics of nuclear power

Psychological Research on Climate and Disasters

Since their 2004 essay, “The Death of Environmentalism,” Shellenberger and Nordhaus have argued that catastrophic rhetoric is counterproductive for those who care about climate change. “Martin Luther King didn’t give the ‘I have a nightmare speech,” they wrote.

In their 2007 book, Break Through, Nordhaus and Shellenberger expanded their argument and described the social psychology research.

Key essays are as follows:

Apocalypse Fatigue: Losing the Public on Climate Change,” Yale e360, November 16, 2009: on apocalyptic thinking and the decline of public concern on climate change

Freeing Energy Policy From the Climate Change Debate,” Yale e360, March 29, 2010: on the risks of linking climate science with efforts to transform energy policy

The Death of Environmentalism,” October 2004

Photo Credit: Both images NASA ESODIS Worldview Note: A previous version of this article used a NASA image of Europe at night that was modified. We have replaced the image to correct the comparison.