The history of energy efficiency in economics: Breakpoints and regularities
Taking a long-run historical perspective, we analyze how debates about energy efficiency have evolved in the economic literature since the mid-19th century. We distinguish three periods: the classical age, focused on the rebound effect, from Jevons in the 1860s to American institutionalism in the mid-20th century; the modern age, marked by the rise of the energy efficiency gap concept, from the 1970s to the 1990s; the contemporary age, from the early 2000s onwards, focused on the concept of energy performance gap. We find that reflections on energy efficiency have embraced more general developments in the economics discipline: emergence of institutionalism in the classical age, primarily concerned with policy; public economics in the modern age, emphasizing the concept of market failure; behavioral economics and the so-called credibility revolution in empirical economics in the contemporary age, which made energy efficiency a much-favored context for conducting experiments, questioning rationality and implementing nudges. The transitions between phases closely paralleled changes in societal concerns, from resource depletion in the classical age to energy security in the modern age to climate change in the contemporary age. Throughout this long history, we have detected a change in focus from macro- to micro-perspectives. Despite increasing sophistication and constant reinterpretation, energy efficiency remains a subject of controversy, such that no consensus has yet been reached on its potential and effective benefits. In closing, we propose to update Jaffe, Newell and Stavins’ landmark energy efficiency gap framework to account for the most recent developments and trace avenues for future research.