Being ‘green’ doesn’t always cut carbon – it’s a lifestyle thing!

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This is an interesting concept – possibly obvious, but not something that everyone appears to have caught onto – turning down the thermostat may not have straightforward carbon-saving effects.

Not as simple as pressing a button

On the back of the news that global carbon emissions reached their highest ever level in 2010 this may have surprised few people, but part of the cause is a lack of people changing their lifestyle ‘in the best way to be green’.

Reducing the amount of energy consumed by households in industrialised countries is a key battleground for tackling carbon emissions. Our government seems to be catching on slowly, few streets have no provision for recycling, and the “green deal” aims to insulate millions of homes – reducing carbon emissions and (ultimately) saving householders money – but here is the rub.

A recently published paper in the journal Energy Policy shows that even straightforward carbon-saving activities such as home insulation are not always quite what they seem. The problem is that making one change around the house leaves the door open for other changes – which might include “rebound effects” that undermine the carbon savings. If a driver who replaces their car with a fuel-efficient model takes advantage of the cheaper running costs and drives further and more often, then the amount of carbon saved is clearly reduced.

Even worse, there are some circumstances where seemingly carbon-saving measures actually increase overall emissions – where the change backfires completely. Using the basic assumption that the money saved on reducing energy consumption has to be spent on something, one ask on what?

In reality only about two-thirds of the calculated carbon reductions are likely to be achieved for typical household actions such as lowering the thermostat or reducing food waste. Money saved on the weekly food bill by reducing food waste is money available for going out for dinner at the exotic Thai restaurant on the weekend. Of course, it is possible that the money saved on the weekly food bill will be spent on an energy-efficient washing machine instead. But it is also possible that the money saved becomes an exotic Thai holiday rather than a Thai meal. In this case, the low-carbon behaviour would have backfired completely.

The message is simply that when you look across a range of actions – rather than just focusing in on one in particular – the reduction in energy consumption is often less than initial calculations suggest.

Current government strategy is to nudge people into specific behavioural changes – but much more effective would be to engage with people at a deeper level, focusing on their personal values, which impact on a range of behaviours.

People can be nudged into making a specific change, but to adopt a low-carbon lifestyle, they need to think about it for themselves.

It is tempting to go for the quick wins – but without an opportunity for more meaningful engagement with the issue, the danger is that people will unwittingly crank up the carbon in other areas of their lives.

Climate change is not going to be solved by a series of clever campaigns that achieve specific outcomes but are blind to the scale of the challenge. It is critical that the government does not lose sight of the bigger picture when promoting low-carbon behaviour – because the danger is that even well-intended household actions will backfire.

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