November 25, 2008

Behavior and Energy Use

Interesting paper from ACEEE, giving a sociological perspective on how energy efficiency policies can be effectively implemented:
The United States can reap a wealth of cost-effective energy savings and reduce our contribution to global greenhouse gas emissions by providing the tools, technologies, education, information, and motivation needed to help all types of Americans change their energy consumption patterns and behaviors. Importantly, however, Americans are more likely to be successful in achieving these savings and in achieving them sooner if they are empowered by effective programs and policies that can help them to:
  1. see more clearly the size of our current energy service demands, how those demands are currently met, and the implications for ourselves, our neighbors, and our children,
  2. understand the range of energy options and choices from household to nation state,
  3. imagine what a different energy future might look like,
  4. prioritize social and governmental goals based on a long-term energy vision, and
  5. make smart energy choices for their own household, business, or industry.
This, I think, is key to building popular support for not just better energy efficiency, but the whole panoply of carbon-cutting tools -- from those that directly impact people's daily routine, e.g. increased mass transit ridership, to those that have a more diffuse effect, e.g. switching from coal to wind energy. It's all too easy to craft what seems like a perfect policy but not consider whether it will be a good fit for the affected populations. Transit-oriented development is great for New York, but maybe not for New Mexico. And even then, a lot depends on what regions you're looking at: Albany and Albuquerque may have more in common with each other than with the rural areas that surround both cities.

In any case, I would argue that climate policy can work in two directions: 1) change institutions, and 2) change behaviors, which is what the ACEEE paper is mainly concerned with. Changing institutions means adopting new mandates, technologies, taxes, etc., whereas changing behaviors means leading people to adopt new practices like, say, installing solar water heaters and finding housing close to transit. Both paths are necessary, but the latter may be a little dodgy, due to fears of engaging in social engineering. Of course, all public policy is social engineering when you get down to it; best, then, to do it in a way that meets broader goals while preserving individual autonomy. Libertarian paternalism, anyone?

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