State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School


Making Green Behavior Automatic


Photo: Intel Free Press
Photo: Intel Free Press

In 2008, Rutgers University instituted a new student printing policy to save on paper waste: It established double-sided printing as the default setting for all its printers. As a result of that simple change, the three Rutgers campuses saved 62 million sheets of paper between 2008 and June 2011. This summer, the paper saving tally will be updated.

A default is defined as an option that applies if the chooser does nothing, but the chooser has the freedom to opt out of the default. The good news is that setting greener choices as defaults can automatically nudge people into more sustainable behavior.

Most of the strategies that have traditionally been used to stem or remediate environmental damage have been top-down command and control measures such as regulations and mandates or economic incentives. They have often been difficult to implement because they end up being expensive or require a great deal of political capital to put into place. Sometimes they have made problems worse. For example, establishing regulations to curb new sources of air pollution has often prolonged the continued use of older dirtier power plants. The United Nations’ issuance of carbon credits for greenhouse gasses has perversely resulted in the increased production of HFC-23, a waste gas (a much more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide) resulting from the making of air-conditioning coolant, because manufacturers earn 11,000 more credits than for carbon dioxide when they destroy it.

Elke Weber, co-director of the Earth Institute’s Center for Research on Environmental Decisions, thinks the use of green defaults is a powerful technique. ”Behavioral interventions, like green defaults, often might be less expensive in terms of cost and political capital,” she said. “And they don’t take away freedom of choice—they just change the way choices are described.”


In their 2008 book, Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth and Happiness, Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein explain that “choice architecture” is the organization of the context in which people make decisions, and decisions are influenced by how choices are presented. There is no such thing as neutral choice architecture because someone, the choice architect, is always making decisions that focus people’s attention in a certain direction. For instance, imagine a public building in which a large modern elevator is placed in the lobby and the stairs are in the back of the building. Now imagine instead if a light airy staircase were located in the lobby with a smaller elevator in the back of the building. Each building design will affect users’ behavior differently.

Defaults are effective at nudging people toward more desirable behavior for a number of reasons. “People tend to be somewhat mindless, passive decision makers” according to Thaler and Sunstein. Human beings are subject to inertia, a powerful desire to stick with what they already have, because making a change requires a conscious cognitive effort. They usually take the option that requires the least effort. People don’t always pay attention and often go along with what Thaler and Sunstein call the “yeah, whatever” option. If the default also seems to be the norm or the option that most others are choosing, people are likely to follow the crowd. Weber also explained that making a decision is a process of arguing with yourself and looking at the evidence on both sides. Research has shown that the evidence for whichever option is considered first gets more credence, which is another reason why people are more likely to stick with a default, the first option. Because a default also gives the impression that someone is recommending this choice, if people choose to opt out, they might feel they’re not being good citizens, particularly in the case of green defaults.

People need nudges most when the decisions they face are complex and difficult or rare, or in situations where they don’t get immediate feedback. Environmental issues fit these parameters because people usually don’t get feedback—in other words, they don’t often understand the environmental consequences of their actions. Moreover, the long-term effects of pollution or climate change are usually hidden from sight, while, for example, the costs of higher taxes on gasoline or polluters are felt immediately.

When dealing with environmental problems, “In a rational discourse, it’s a lot easier to counter the arguments against defaults than it is the ones against regulations or economic incentives, because they cost less and maintain freedom of choice,” said Weber. “But discourse is not always rational.” And unfortunately, special interest groups oppose anything that goes against their interests, including green defaults, which have often been demonized as brainwashing.

An alternative to the use of defaults is “required choice,” i.e. forcing choosers to make their own choice; though for complex issues, people would probably prefer to go with a default. Sometimes the best option might be “… to be transparent about the choice architecture and show how actions are being shaped,” said Weber. ”If all the choices are on the table and if all options are explained, the consumer can decide who has his best interests at heart.”

Here are some examples of effective green defaults.

–     In the German towns of Schönau and Wüstenhagen, more than 90 percent of people are enrolled in clean energy programs. Green energy providers are the default. Even after customers received their bills and noted a higher cost, most chose not to opt out of the program.

–     Opower, a Virginia-based company, works with 80 utilities around the world to help customers save on energy and reduce their carbon emissions.

Photo: Gary Jungling
Photo: Gary Jungling

Two strategies it uses are Home Energy Reports that reveal how much energy customers are using compared to their neighbors, and thermostats that show how much money they would lose if they made their temperature settings higher in winter and lower in summer. The sense of competition and aversion to losing money results in substantial energy savings. In five years, Opower has saved 2 terawatt-hours of energy worldwide—equivalent to taking the city of Sacramento off the grid for a year. Customers may opt out of the program if they choose, but only 1 percent do.

–     Driving Change, a program piloted by the city and county of Denver, CO, is an internet-based greenhouse gas management program. It involves the installation of a small device in the car that measures miles travelled, idling, fast starts, hard braking, speeds over 60 mph and fuel consumption. The data is sent to a website where it is analyzed. Companies or individual drivers can receive reports that help them track their greenhouse gas emissions and fuel use. In 2008, a pilot test of Driving Change with 160 city vehicles resulted in an idling decrease of 15 percent.

–     Nissan’s ECO Pedal controls lead-footedness through a mechanism in the pedal that offers resistance when too much pressure is applied in fast starts and acceleration. It has two levels of resistance, and can supposedly improve fuel efficiency by 5 to 10 percent. Drivers can opt to bypass it.

–     In 2009, Columbia University removed trays from its dining halls at John Jay and Ferris Booth Commons to help eliminate food waste. Students were taking too much food on their trays and throwing away 190-450 lbs of food at every meal.

Photo: Shihmei Barger
Photo: Shihmei Barger

The trayless cafeteria now saves 50 lbs of food waste at each meal and 3000 gallons of water waste each day. Reusable and recyclable eco-containers and water bottles are given to students to take out food and refill with water. Other universities that have adopted trayless cafeterias include Georgetown, Johns Hopkins, University of Virginia, American University and Virginia Tech.

–     In the city of Fort Collins, CO, garbage had previously been placed in 90-gallon containers and recycling in 35-gallon containers. After the city switched things around, giving residents the 90-gallon containers for recycling and the smaller container for garbage, the residents reportedly started recycling more, filling up the larger containers, and had less garbage to put into the smaller containers.

While changing individual behavior is important, we also need to think about changing behavior on a much larger scale to meet the challenges of climate change.

Thaler and Sunstein have proposed that the government create a Greenhouse Gas Inventory that would require major emitters to disclose how much they are emitting. The public would be able to see who the largest emitters are, which might shame them into taking action to reduce their emissions. States and municipalities could also respond with laws or regulations.

“People’s habits and what we’ve done in the past have been shaped by old values, old technologies and old codes,” said Weber. She and the Network for the Utilization of Social Science Research on Sustainability and Energy have applied for a grant from the National Science Foundation to apply choice architecture, not to individuals, but to the people who design our infrastructure and influence what kind of heating or cooling goes into buildings, and how highways are designed. Weber and her colleagues are currently meeting with standard setting organizations, engineering and professional societies, and designers of software programs because all the software used has defaults for lighting, heating and other standards. “We want to explore how to use defaults and different kinds of behavioral practices to be more energy cognizant,” said Weber. “This will be a way to have a more massive impact.”



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Recent record-breaking heat waves have affected communities across the world. The Extreme Heat Workshop will bring together researchers and practitioners to advance the state of knowledge, identify community needs, and develop a framework for evaluating risks with a focus on climate justice. Register by June 15

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