The Rebound Effects in Digital: Understanding and Anticipating – WeeeDoIT

The Rebound Effects in Digital: Understanding and Anticipating

Team WeeeDoIT

Today, many people believe that it’s the new technologies that will help us fight climate change. Between resource optimization, eco-design of some of our tools, and the virtualization of our data, the possibilities for improvement are numerous.

In 2019, there were 34 billion active devices worldwide, and this number is constantly increasing. The pollution generated by digital, even though it’s a domain that touches the virtual, is far from being immaterial.

Digital technologies also have their limits. Optimization doesn’t necessarily mean a reduction in negative impacts. Because even if usage has a lesser impact, it’s consumption and habits that are changed. The balance then shifts, so that the widespread use of a tool counterbalances the reduction in footprint obtained per unit of product.

But then, how do we calculate the rebound effects associated with the use of digital? What are the causes of these rebound effects and how can they be reduced?

What is a Rebound Effect?

This term describes situations where the gains obtained in terms of performance or resource use are offset by the behaviors of people who use these technologies.

This means that we will consume even more resources following innovation and the relaxation of limits on the use of a technology.

These relaxed limits can be:

  1. Monetary;
  2. Temporal;
  3. Social;
  4. Physical;
  5. Organizational;
  6. Related to effort.

Many rebound effects occur in the digital sector. For example, the miniaturization of certain components has allowed the optimization of terminals and the reduction of prices, leading to an explosion in the consumption of computer tools.

Old screen CRT Samsung

The Jevons Paradox

Named after the British economist William Stanley Jevons, this concept created in 1865 is defined as follows: “as technological improvements increase the efficiency with which a resource is used, the total consumption of that resource may increase instead of decrease.”

At the time, he spoke of coal and the increase in its consumption following the introduction of James Watt’s steam engine. Logically, this invention should have reduced coal usage, except that Watt’s innovation made coal more profitable, and therefore steam engines multiplied in factories.

Rebound effects are difficult to calculate and are not necessarily visible immediately, but they are undeniable when it comes to discussing digital and computer tools. We see this with our phones, the more their components are optimized, the more powerful and resource-hungry the phones become.

In simple terms, Jevons points out that the more progress brought by a technology is effective, the more often it will be canceled out by the change in behavior it induces.

The 3 Types of Rebound Effects

In general, there are three types of rebound effects that induce different behaviors.


Direct rebound effects are those that are most easily perceived in the changes they induce in consumption behavior. They often appear after the cost of a resource decreases.

This reduction allows a larger number of people to adopt technologies or to consume more of them.

For example, when the price of water decreases, we see an increase in the number of people taking baths or watering their lawns. The same goes for electricity when the cost is reduced, more devices that consume it are used.


The indirect rebound effect occurs when a resource is better managed. That is to say, it is produced in an optimized manner and this impacts its cost downwards. Consumers of this resource, with the savings made, will consume other polluting products.

For example, if a couple manages to save money thanks to better insulation of their apartment, they could buy a larger car or go on a trip by plane to the other side of the world. The benefits of better insulation would be lost in the negative ecological impact of these different actions.


Structural rebound effects induce a change in behavior on the part of both the consumer and the producer of the goods. We saw this with the development of telecommuting. Thanks to the latter, several employees have decided to live further away from their workplace.

Since they do not commute daily, we can imagine a reduction in emissions related to the car. Except that often, since they live further away, the trips made are longer and therefore emit more pollution.

Structural rebound effects are the result of a reduction in prices and induce a change in behavior that occurs deeply. For example, for computer equipment, this results in the multiplication of the number of terminals that each person owns.


The Digital Rebound Effects

Rebound effects are difficult to calculate because the criteria for doing so are imprecise, and above all, difficult to define. The parameters to be taken into account beforehand are multiple to anticipate the consequences as best as possible.

For digital, according to Deepomatic, rebound effects are divided into 4 distinct typologies, somewhat different from the 3 mentioned earlier.


The material rebound effect is the one we see most in daily life. We imagine that technological optimization will lead to savings in resources and therefore a decrease in the use of rare materials.

Except that the opposite happens; these resources continue to be exploited to meet the market introduction of new innovative products.


As above, the economic rebound effect of digital comes from optimization of time and/or money in the user’s process. The more time and/or money the user has freed up through better use of the tool, the more they can use it to consume other goods or services.


The structural effect concerning digital refers to the scenario where technological innovations induce a change in consumption or create new habits.

The digitalization of all processes in companies is a good example of this. The Cloud and data virtualization have become habits, which generates more and more data and the need for an increasing number of servers to store them.


The psychological rebound effect occurs when optimizations and technological advances allow tools to be more efficient. The user uses this optimization, explicitly or not, as an excuse to consume other resources.

Digital technologies are part of our daily lives and there are many rebound effects. It is important to step back to try to understand the problem as a whole in order to better understand the consequences that new technologies will have.

3 Tips to Reduce Rebound Effects

The rebound effects of digital cannot be avoided but they can be reduced. In addition to trying to have an overview of all the parameters that influence rebound effects, here are some simple tips to implement.

1. Extend the lifespan of devices

At first glance, this seems simple, but we live in a consumer society where planned obsolescence is the norm. To succeed in extending the life of devices, there is nothing better than repairing as soon as possible and preserving your equipment by downloading eco-designed, lightweight software, etc.

Extending the life of devices also involves buying second-hand or refurbished tools. This significantly reduces direct rebound effects (increase in the use of rare materials for the manufacture of terminals) and digital pollution.

In France, 81% of the environmental impact of digital comes from terminals. Between manufacturing, importation from Asian countries, and end-of-life, since the recycling of components is complicated, the footprint is colossal. Buying refurbished or second-hand avoids pollution linked to the creation of new terminals.

2. Move towards digital sobriety

To avoid too significant rebound effects, it is important to regulate its use to reduce its carbon footprint and move towards digital sobriety. We talk about “environmentally virtuous” uses and these actions can be implemented in our daily lives or in business.

We know, for example, that what consumes the most resources and has the heaviest impact is streaming. Whether on dedicated platforms or on YouTube, 4K videos are multiplying.

According to the Shift Project, video streams represented 80% of data flows in 2018.

The digital pollution that results from this is the consequence of several factors:

  • The electricity used to power the data centers and deliver the video to our terminals;
  • The weight of videos that are becoming increasingly heavy.

According to Le Bon Numérique, watching 1 hour per day of 1080p video on YouTube would emit as much CO2 over a year as a car traveling 29,000 km.

The same goes for emails, which accumulated in mailboxes, emit digital pollution of which we are sometimes unaware.

This is why it is important to regularly sort through emails and transfer heavy files using tools like FileVert rather than sending attachments directly.

The uses to move towards digital sobriety are numerous but have a common goal: to educate about the fact that our impact is not “immaterial” because it’s virtual and that nothing is “unlimited”.

3. Have a global understanding of the problem

To reduce the rebound effects of digital, it is necessary to try to have an overview in order to understand them better. It is only when we take into account as many parameters as possible that we can see on which points the impacts will occur, both negative and positive.

The example of the deployment of 5G is telling. Less energy-intensive than previous technologies with equal data, this does not mean that it is ecological.

The emissions will not decrease either because it is necessary to take into account:

  • The renewal of all terminals,
  • The manufacturing and installation of antennas.

But above all, since the data will be faster and heavier to transfer, they will increase in our daily usage, which cancels out the beneficial effects of the weight reduction.

Board reparation

Understanding the rebound effects of digital is complex. They reveal the contradictions in our consumption and production habits. To effectively reduce them, digital sobriety and green IT are the topics to aim for.

Numerous training courses exist on the subject, whether for employees or managers, such as those offered by GreenIT.

Several measures can be taken to bring concreteness to this approach:

  1. The integration of, even approximate, measures of rebound effects in the environmental assessments of companies’ products and/or services;
  2. The definition of a method for measuring rebound effects based on defined and precise parameters (at WeeeDoIT, we have created a tool that allows you to calculate your avoided emissions);
  3. Raising awareness of these issues within the company.

Do you want to reduce your carbon footprint and digital pollution? Send us a message so we can discuss your IT fleet and our refurbished hardware services.

Team WeeeDoIT & Emma

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