Rebound effect and sustainability science: A review

August 2022
Wiley Online Library
Journal of Industrial Ecology

Rebound effects have been historically studied through narrow framings which may overlook the complexity of sustainability challenges, sometimes leading to badly informed conclusions and policy recommendations. Here we present a critical literature review of rebound effects in the context of sustainability science in order to (1) map existing rebound research which goes beyond mainstream approaches, (2) unveil and classify current knowledge gaps in relation to sustainability science, (3) outline a research agenda, and (4) provide a knowledge base to support the design of effective policies toward sustainable development. We analyzed the literature in accordance with seven criteria for sustainable assessment: boundary orientedness, comprehensiveness, integratedness, stakeholder involvement, scalability, strategicness, and transparency. Our review identified three main issues: (1) the failure to address the multidimensionality of rebound effects, whereby both negative and positive outcomes may arise simultaneously, (2) the shift toward absolute rebound metrics which enables the contextualization of its effect with respect to science and policy goals, and (3) a general lack of attention to behavioral effects. We conclude that addressing these issues will help rebound research gain explanatory power and relevance for key decision-makers. We envision that with better alignment with sustainability science, future rebound research could help elucidate trade-offs in policies, including why certain strategies such as those based on the circular economy might fall short of expectations, and why achieving key goals and targets such as the sustainable development goals is so challenging. This knowledge is crucial for promoting a prioritization of actions and a concrete transition toward sustainability.