State of the Planet

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Changing Household Behavior to Reduce Carbon Emissions

What is the potential for reducing U.S. greenhouse gas emissions at the household level? Oftentimes people believe that their individual actions may not make much of a dent in reducing harmful greenhouse gases.

However, a new article entitled “Reducing Carbon-Based Energy Consumption through Changes in Household Behavior” by Tom Dietz, Paul Stern and Elke Weber cites that household decisions that directly affect energy consumption (e.g. choices about appliance purchase and use or home heating and cooling) account for more than 30 percent of U.S. CO2 emissions, and a comparable amount of overall energy use. The paper appears in the Winter 2013 issue of Daedalus (the Journal of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences). It states that actions by individuals and households to reduce carbon-based energy consumption have the potential to change the picture of U.S. energy consumption and carbon dioxide emissions in the near term. This potential will, however, only be realized if energy policies and programs replace outmoded assumptions about what drives human behavior by integrating insights from the behavioral and social sciences with those from engineering and economics.

Weber, a co-director of the Center for Research on Environmental Decisions and an Earth Institute professor, says that “what determines human action is often a far cry from the rational calculations and deliberations of homo economicus.”

The paper focuses on how individuals and households make decisions when they act as consumers, such as purchasing a car and deciding how to use, maintain and drive it; or buying and using household appliances. The conventional economic model suggests that prices dominate household energy decisions. But the researchers argue that a “prices only” model is not sufficient to explain real world choices by households or companies. There is a need to design programs for ways real people make choices.

Credit: Anton Fomkin.

Dietz, Stern, and Weber began by identifying household actions that will have the greatest impact. They found that the overall impact of energy reduction is the product of three factors: 1) Technical potential, 2) Size of target population and 3) Plasticity of the behavior. Plasticity is the likelihood that a household will make the change that a policy or program encourages. It is not an inherent attribute of particular human choices but instead depends on context. The combination of these factors yields a Reasonably Achievable Emissions Reductions (RAER) factor, which can be used to identify the most attractive targets for household behavioral change.

In addition to targeting those household actions that will have the greatest impact, the author team found that the most effective interventions implement five design principles:

  1. For many actions with high RAER, financial incentives are essential
  2. Program must be smartly communicated
  3. Information must be accurate and come from credible sources
  4. Simple processes lead to adoption, complex processes often do not
  5. Quality assurance is essential

For example, the Cash for Clunkers program which offered a rebate to trade in an old car (and thereby enhance fuel efficiency) was easy to use because paperwork was completed by the car retailer, there was an effective financial incentive and a strong marketing campaign promoted it.

Credit: Tony Fischer Photography

One of the biggest obstacles comes from programs that are overly complex and require substantial paperwork. To circumvent this, the city of Davis, California has rules that include energy-efficiency standards as part of building sale requirements. When a house is bought or sold, the costs of upgrading energy-efficiency features are usually a small fraction of the price, thus making the costs seem smaller. Home buying already involves substantial paperwork handled by a professional, so energy standard certification does not add too much complexity to the transaction.

There is immense potential for reducing fossil energy consumption through household decisions. The researchers provide a conservative estimate of this potential at 7 percent reduction in U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. New insights from social science can help achieve this potential by creating environments that support active and passive decisions such as no-choice default options and framing choice options to match concerns of the household.

“Policy makers and other change agents who better understand human choice processes can work with human nature rather than against it, wishing for more rational consumers. This makes for more effective policies and greater hope for a sustainable future,” says Weber.

Further information:

Full Article: “Reducing Carbon-Based Energy Consumption through Changes in Household Behavior”

Center for Research on Environmental Decisions (CRED) Web site

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Robert Morelli
Robert Morelli
11 years ago

I just wanted to say that I really enjoyed your site and this post. Most climate change policy attention has been addressed to long-term options, such as inducing new, low-carbon energy technologies and creating cap-and-trade regimes for emissions.

Star Ratsonoff
Star Ratsonoff
7 years ago

Compact fluorescent lights are not a good solution. We should have gone straight to LED instead of giving government subsidies to that temporary, energy-wasting, mercury-laden measure.