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How do we get individuals to reduce their energy consumption?

Changing environmental behaviour

At a community meeting last night, I got a sobering insight into how difficult it can be to change individuals' environmental behaviour.

A member of the Dalbeattie Community Initiative stood up to explain the outcomes of £168,000 of funding they had received from the Scottish Government (as part of an ongoing £27m project to support innovative and locally-led projects to cut carbon emissions and build sustainable communities) "to undertake community engagement, open discussions and events, domestic carbon surveys and direct support and advice leading to real and measurable reductions in carbon emissions from the Dalbeattie community."

This funded an 18 month project designed to reduce Dalbeattie’s carbon footprint. They paid 4 full time staff to interview a target of 80% of the population. They managed only 10% in that time and discovered a lot of apathy. Many in Dalbeattie also live in social housing and are struggling to make ends meet: they didn’t take kindly to being told they could reduce their carbon emissions by cutting down their intercontinental flights…

The Initiative organised and well publicised a viewing of ‘Age of Stupid’ (the climate change film with Pete Postlethwaite): 7 people turned up. They organised an eco-driving event: 4 people turned up. The population of Dalbeattie, by the way, is 4,000.

It can be difficult for ordinary working people to see just how they fit in to global initiatives. If you have a family, and are struggling to get by, the almost abstract issue of carbon reduction is probably going to be way down your list of things to worry about. Maybe worrying about climate change is a middle class issue for those with the free mental space, or the luxury, to be able to think about it. The question then becomes, how is change best affected within the majority of the population?

One alternative is through economic instruments, for example price. It has been argued that the more that energy is made expensive, the more people will reduce their consumption, either by altering their behaviour or by conserving it. A tripling of heating oil in the 12 years since I bought my old house has certainly made the expensive and often disruptive insulating of my solid walled house look like a very sound idea. But I can afford it, and the problem with rising fuel costs in Scotland is that over 700,000 Scottish households cannot afford to heat their homes effectively and every 1% rise in fuel costs sends another 8,000 into fuel poverty (more than 10% of a household’s income spent on heating, lighting and cooking).

It was reported by the media yesterday though, that there have been 15 million extra train journeys so far this year (compared to 2010) so the fuel price increase may have had a bigger impact on behaviour than any number of 'green initiatives'. Petrol sales are down by a fifth in the last year (and breakdowns due to tanks running empty are up by 17% in the same period).

“Saving energy should be the main goal but it seems contrary to our consumption society where growth is praised as solving everything. Saving energy will not be done with protocols or laws, but by convincing the consumer to change his way of life.” Jean Laherrere, 2006

It's how we go about this convincing that is the nub of the problem.


This is just one of the stories from my environmental talks

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