There are two quick and fairly easy approaches to reducing US emissions of CO2 by several percent. These reduction would be at the household level, possibly decreasing the household cost of energy by between 20 and 30 percent (or more, depending on the household) and decreasing national total CO2 emissions by around 10% or so.
But these approaches are nearly impossible to implement. Why? Because people are ignorant and selfish.
The two methods are: 1) Replace existing technologies with more efficient ones and 2) Use energy less. I’m not talking about replacing technologies at a fundamental level. I’m talking about replacing your wasteful light bulbs with energy efficient light bulbs. I’m talking about, if you are a two car family, figuring out how to replace one of your two SUV’s with an energy efficient vehicle. You’ll still have one vehicle available to tow around your boy toys and load with groceries, and you have the person doing the longest daily commute use the gas-sipping hybrid. That sort of thing. Regarding using less energy, that would include turning off the lights in rooms you are not in, walking or stair climbing instead of driving or elevating, that sort of thing.
Pop Quiz: Given these two basic approaches, which we’ll call Efficiency (E) vs. Curtailment (C), which is better? In other words, consider this thought experiment: Divide all of the potential household energy use reduction activities into two lists, C and E. Then, each of one thousand households is assigned a randomly chosen C, and each of a second one thousand households is assigned a randomly chosen E, which group would realize the largest percentage of household energy use reduction? (Of course, there would be a third sample of one thousand households given a placebo to take three times a day.)
The answer should be obvious by inspecting the standard behavioral ecological model, α = λB – C. λ is efficiency (between 0 and 1.0), C is specific uses of energy, and B is your budget. You are trying to minimize α.
Obviously, it will depend on the magnitude of efficiency changes and how often you curtail a use. But overall, efficiency trumps curtailment. You SHOULD replace all your bulbs with compact florescent bulbs AND turn them off when you are not using them. But if you had top pick one, and you started out with a household of regular, inefficient bulbs, dropping back your use to 25% or less by replacing the old bulbs with CF’s (efficiency) will get you better savings than being compulsive about turning off the lights. Generally, the various things people can do to reduce energy use can be quantified, and then, people can be asked what they think the best thing to do might be. Then, we can look at the results and laugh at how truly ignorant the average person is. Then, when we are done laughing, we can cry because energy conservation has been on the table for decades and most people are still utterly clueless as to how to go about it. (And that doesn’t even count people simply being selfish, hoping others will solve this problem for them.)
And of course this is all demonstrated in a new OpenAccess study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
The study began with an open-ended survey question that asked participants to indicate the most effective thing they could do to conserve energy. Two judges identiﬁed 17 mutually exclusive categories of responses in an initial set of 40 surveys … and then independently coded the remaining responses. … We further classiﬁed these categories as curtailment actions (e.g., Turn off lights) or efﬁciency actions (e.g., Use efﬁcient light bulbs) … Despite [the previously demonstrated] conclusion that efﬁciency-improving actions generally save more energy than curtailing the use of inefﬁcient equipment, only 11.7% of participants mentioned efﬁciency improvements, whereas 55.2% mentioned curtailment as a strategy for conserving energy.
So people don’t get the basic logic that not using energy when you don’t need it is good, but that efficiency is really really good. This makes sense even if it is wrong, because people are accustom to deciding whether to do something or not, and very resistant to changing how they do something.
With respect to people’s perceptions of the amount of energy used and saved:
Each participant estimated the energy used by nine devices and appliances and the energy saved by six household activities, with the energy used by a 100-W incandescent light bulb in 1h provided as a reference point. For each participant, we assessed the correlation between these perceptions and actual energy use and savings (as determined from the literature), after transforming both distributions with base-10 logarithms to reduce positive skew. The mean correlation between log10Perception and log10Actual was r = 0.51 [t(488) = 36.34, P < 0.0001, η2 = 0.70], indicating that participants had signiﬁcant (but imperfect) knowledge of which devices and activities were associated with greater energy use and savings.
This is promising, but not as promising as it looks, because it turns out that people’s overestimate of how much energy will be saved increase with the total amount of energy used. People are pretty close in estimating the amount of energy a CF light bulb will save over a regular light bulb. But people seem to think that an efficient dishwasher, air conditioner, or clothes dryer will save a LOT more energy than is actually the case.
People overestimate the value of driving slowly in their car and underestimate getting a tune up twice a year. They do seem to properly estimate the value of getting a more efficient car. (The fact that they don’t, well, that’s the part about being selfish, I suppose.)
The authors conclude:
Notwithstanding a few bright spots (e.g., knowing roughly how much energy is saved by a CFL), participants in this study exhibited relatively little knowledge regarding the comparative energy use and potential savings related to different behaviors. … participants were overly focused on curtailment rather than efﬁciency, possibly because efﬁciency improvements almost always involve research, effort, and out-of-pocket costs (e.g., buying a new energy-efﬁcient appliance)…
Participants were also poorly attuned to large energy differences across devices and activities and unaware of differences for some large-scale economic activities (transporting goods by train vs. truck) and everyday items (aluminum vs. glass beverage containers). … It may not require much insight to realize that a major appliance (of any variety) uses more energy than a single light bulb (be it incandescent or ﬂuorescent) or that tuning one’s car saves more energy in a year than reducing one’s highway speed saves in an hour. Despite displaying some sensitivity to these and other differences, participants severely underestimated their magnitudes.
… participants with higher numeracy scores had more accurate perceptions … Participants with stronger proenvironmental attitudes were also more accurate. Even so, participants who scored high on both measures still had relatively [little understanding] … Unexpectedly, participants who engaged more in energy-conserving behaviors had less accurate perceptions of energy use and savings, possibly reﬂecting unrealistic optimism about the effectiveness of their personal energy-saving strategies compared with alternative ones …
Many people’s concerns about energy are simply not strong enough, relative to their other concerns, to warrant learning about energy conservation. Although it may be appropriate to criticize the media for not presenting the case for climate change more strongly and for not presenting the implications of individual behavior more clearly, scientists share at least some of the responsibility for the current state of affairs.
… increasing fossil fuel prices to reﬂect the true environmental costs of CO2 emissions would … provide strong incentives for learning and behavior change.
Attari, S., DeKay, M., Davidson, C., & Bruine de Bruin, W. (2010). From the Cover: Public perceptions of energy consumption and savings Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 107 (37), 16054-16059 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1001509107