Vanderbilt Law Review


Noah M. Sachs

First Page



Alternative energy supplies get most of the attention in the climate change debate, but reducing energy demand should be the dominant strategy for cutting global greenhouse gas emissions. Dozens of technical studies have concluded that improving the efficiency of automobiles, furnaces, motors, consumer electronics, lighting, air conditioners, and other energy-using products is the cheapest and fastest way to achieve dramatic reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.' In fact, avoiding catastrophic global heating largely depends on how fast energy efficient technology can be deployed over the next few decades.

Energy efficiency can be promoted through multiple policies, such as energy taxes, a cap-and-trade system, tax credits for efficient appliances, product labeling, increased government research and evelopment ("R&D"), or direct regulatory limits on the energy consumption of products.

Of these policies, the regulatory option seems most intrusive, as it limits consumer choice and requires complex governmental mandates that affect product design. While the other policies nudge consumers in the direction of efficiency, regulation commands energy efficient choices by forcing inefficient products off the market. In this Article, I demonstrate that the regulatory strategy for energy efficiency is working. Although information disclosure, financial incentives, and other softer alternatives to regulation play a vital role in reducing energy demand, these should be viewed as complements to efficiency regulation, rather than replacements. The regulatory approach has led to substantial cost and energy savings in the past, it has enjoyed bipartisan political support, and it targets products and behaviors that are difficult to address through other policy tools. Given the politics of climate change in the United States, which make federal carbon taxes or a cap-and-trade system infeasible, the regulatory option should be expanded, not abandoned.