Thursday, 11 September 2008

Finally, a clear guide to the most effective actions you can take to curb climate change

In America, a whopping 38 per cent of energy is consumed by private households - far more than is consumed by the entire industrial sector. Now, in a new article for Environment magazine, a pair of US-based psychologists have published a list of the most effective ways for households to reduce their energy consumption.

Gerald Gardner and Paul Stern argue that most (American) people believe in the idea that human activity is responsible for climate change, and most people are motivated to reduce their energy use. But they say that thanks to a lack of clear information on the most effective ways to reduce energy consumption, many people engage exclusively in activities, such as turning off lights, or turning down the thermostat, that while highly visible, are actually relatively ineffective.

Part of the problem is that many campaigns strive to increase people's motivation, without giving adequate information on what behaviours to change. High profile publications like "The Live Earth Global Warming Survival Handbook" have tended to produce checklists of green behaviours without giving any indication of which steps will have the most impact.

In general, Gardner and Stern say that curtailing certain activities - the idea that we must make sacrifices to save the planet - is generally ineffective. By contrast, taking active steps to become more energy efficient will lead to much larger reductions in energy use.
"...efficiency-improving actions generally save more energy — and reduce carbon emissions more — than curtailing use of intrinsically inefficient equipment. For example, buying and maintaining a highly fuel-efficient vehicle saves more energy than carpooling to work with another person, lowering top highway speeds, consolidating shopping or errand trips, and altering driving habits in an existing gasoline-inefficient motor vehicle. This general finding challenges the belief that energy savings entail curtailment and sacrifice of amenities. Not only is efficiency generally more effective than curtailment, but it has the important psychological advantage of requiring only one or a few actions. Curtailment actions must be repeated continuously over time to achieve their optimal effect, whereas efficiency-boosting actions, taken infrequently or only once, have lasting effects with little need for continuing attention and effort."
With rising fuel prices and the credit crunch, the publication of this article is certainly timely. It also seems that the U.K. government may be on the right tack, seeing as they've announced today a scheme to fund half the cost of insulation for all households.

Gardner and Stern's list is broken down into separate categories, taking into account that while costly actions might be more effective, there is also a need for people to know the relative effectiveness of cost-free or low cost actions.
  • For individuals/households, the most effective low cost/short-term green behaviour in relation to transportation is to share car journeys or "carpool"; in relation to the home, it's to replace incandescent bulbs with compact fluorescent bulbs.
  • For longer-term benefits, with a higher financial cost, the most effective action in relation to transport is to buy low-rolling resistance tyres. The next most effective action is to buy a more fuel-efficient car. The latter action is complicated by the issue of whether one's current car is still useable. If it is, then the energy cost of producing the new car counts against any gains.
  • Finally, for home-owners (as opposed to tenants who can't really do these things), the most effective low-cost/short-term action is to weather strip the house, while the most effective, but more costly, longer-term action is to buy a more efficient heating system.
For the full list of 17 actions, see the original article. By some estimates, if people complete the whole list, they'll cut their energy use by a half.

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

Link to full text (open access) of article: "The Short List: The Most Effective Actions U.S. Households Can Take to Curb Climate Change".
Link to the Energy Saving Trust, a UK-based organisation who provide advice on saving energy.

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