Green nudges, clever and not so clever

Behavioural science can do its bit in averting severe climate change, but it has to be done well

How will climate change affect you personally? This can be hard to tell. There is broad scientific consensus that it is happening (and will continue to happen). Sophisticated models project numerous consequences, from increasingly extreme weather patterns to dramatic rises in sea level. But it is not easy to imagine, let alone determine, how precisely all this will affect your own life.

In the air and on the ground

One study from a few years back, conducted by three economists, Greer Gosnell, John List and Robert Metcalfe, showed how airline pilots could be encouraged to reduce fuel consumption. Pilots make numerous decisions, and some of those significantly affect kerosene consumption. Before the flight they need to establish how much fuel should be pumped into the aeroplane: taking more fuel than necessary will increase consumption (as the plane needs to carry the weight of the excess fuel). When they’ve landed and taxi to the stand, they can choose to do so on just one engine and switch off the others, which will save fuel. And of course, during the flight, they can adjust their speed and altitude, both of which influence momentaneous consumption.

Little box, big effect (source)

Reasons for success

Why were these interventions, both with the airline captains and with the households as consumers of energy, successful? One factor was a clear behavioural starting point. To change people’s behaviour, you need three things: an understanding of what they do right now, a clear definition of what they ought to be doing, and a clear-cut mechanism by which they are more likely to choose the desired behaviour over the old one. For example, refuelling, taxiing and adjusting speed and altitude were identified as crucial decision points where old and new behaviour were positioned. Likewise, there are discrete, well-defined things consumers can do to cut down their energy usage, from replacing incandescent bulbs with low-power ones, to showering for the duration of The Ramones’ Blitzkrieg Bop (2:12) rather than prog rockers Genesis’ Supper’s Ready (22:54). Reminding people of such actions, and providing encouragement (by showing them similar consumers that actually do better) gently nudges people towards greener behaviour.

What would make you move from a red house to a blue one? (source)

Accidental behavioural economist in search of wisdom. Uses insights from (behavioural) economics in organization development. On Twitter as @koenfucius

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