In helping my local municipality develop a Climate Action Plan, I reviewed several articles discussing the barriers to individuals and households making behavioral changes to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. An estimated 38 percent of the United States’ overall carbon emissions comes from household energy usage, which means significant changes in household behavior are necessary for our country to meet its greenhouse gas emission reduction goals.
Government regulations are driving technology changes, such as higher appliance-efficiency standards, but efficiency improvements alone are not going to do it. Individuals must make better energy usage choices in their daily activities to achieve needed usage reductions. Passing regulations is easy; changing decision-making and behavior is not.
Do I carpool or drive alone? Do I weatherize my home? Do I replace my incandescent bulbs—with CFL or LED? Do I need that light on? How and where do I set my thermostat?
There are multiple barriers to behavioral change and there is no silver bullet. The specific methods of intervention are best tailored to the specific change and outcome desired. There are, however, some common elements to making lasting change:
- Make it easy: Free community programs for energy audits and retrofits both educate and make immediate changes with only a phone call.
- Make it financially attractive: Show people the payback so they see what’s in it for them. Communicate the cost of leaving a light, power strips and electronics on when not in use; and the ease of turning them off. Rebates and credits may be needed to get some to act or to balance the financial equation.
- Make sure it works: Poor quality of a service or product will create only headwinds for implementation. Go with what works and shoot for the best.
- Provide timely gratification: A lower utility bill next month or an instant rebate is superior to a tax credit next April.
- Take a multi-pronged approach: Don’t rely on just one method. Easy, financially attractive, well-understood changes have a better chance of being adopted and maintained.
Reduction of greenhouse gases is only one of the many environmental improvements we are trying to tackle. As environmental leaders, we need to further integrate social science with the environmental science to achieve better use of our natural resources. The next increments of improvement will be the hardest as we are will need to address the individual behavior of the earth’s residents.
What methods are you using to change the behavior of your organization and community to make better environmentally-sensitive decisions?