Monday, November 30, 2009

China (again)

China's announcement of a target of a reduction of 40%-45% in carbon intensity by 2020 as compared to 2005 levels is bad news. Bad news because a reduction in carbon intensity as opposed to absolute levels ignores economic growth. At a projected growth rate of 8% a year, in 10 years, China's economy will grow over 17 fold! But China is already emitting 4.6 tons of carbon dioxide per capita today which is more than its "fair share" if we aim for an allocation for a 450 ppm stabilization level. That figure is 2 tons of CO2 per person. In absolute terms (as opposed to carbon intensity), that demands a 90% reduction in current US emissions and over a 50% reduction in China's per capita emissions.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Changing attitudes

I recently gave a talk on why changing attitudes is more important than changing behavior – changing attitudes toward government climate policy. The UK is the only place I know of where a concerted effort has been made to do this. It is instructive to attend to what has been found to work and not work there (as reported by Futerra Sustainability Communications):
What does not work:
• Recent surveys show that people without children may care more about climate change than those with children.
• Fear can create apathy if individuals have no ‘agency’ to act upon the threat. Use fear with great caution.
• The evidence discredits the ‘rational man’ theory – we rarely weigh objectively the value of different decisions and then take the clear self-interested choice.
• Providing information is not wrong; relying on information alone to change attitudes is wrong.
What has been found to work:
• Compelling mental picture of the positive goal
• A choice between the goal or the problem
• A strong and memorable 5 year plan
• Citizen level specifics that fit the goal and plan
• Getting the public talking
• The need for a desirable and descriptive mental picture of a low carbon, climate change adapted economy to open all climate change communications.
• The vision must be positive and it must be salient (i.e. paint a clear, appealing picture).
• Describing a positive solution in response to a problem does not work; leading with the vision is the only way to ensure we are listened to rather than ignored.
• The vision must create social proof (i.e. imply that “everyone” now wants this positive future for their children).
• Make climate change locally relevant.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Copenhagen or bust?

Note to readers: I welcome comments on this blog but can only respond to them if you write using an email address that accepts replies.

So, there will be no binding agreement in Copenhagen. It does not matter. A binding formal agreement is the least important thing in the whole process – especially since, binding or not, enforcement of such an agreement is going to hinge on informal arrangements. What a binding agreement does is to formalize an already arrived at consensus. How you arrive at the consensus is another matter. The challenge of climate is of course this: Nature is not going to send us clear signals that underscore our common interests until it is too late. So one challenge is going to be whether, and how, to create enough of an international consensus to sway dissenters. One thing to keep in mind, it does not have to be an all or none matter – despite the claims of the Tragedy of the Commons. For more on this see my article in Climatic Change 2009 97:59-65. Here is a link to the paper:

Monday, November 9, 2009

Why Copenhagen Matters

Some are ready to declare Copenhagen dead along with any kind of agreement that depends on long-term commitments by sovereign states. Our chances are better to act unilaterally with international collaboration wherever possible. But I think it is a mistake to see the choice as between successful binding agreements by nation states and unilateralism. What the Copenhagen process offers (and after all it does not need to be concluded this year to be a success), is a context in which parties can create incentives to encourage commitments being taken seriously in the context of a global economic system in which many sticks and carrots exist. The value of Copenhagen is threefold – it creates a framework that can be adjusted if and when our projections of what needs to be done prove to have been too optimistic. It also creates a standard which sets expectation for all parties unlike Kyoto. Finally, it offers a context in which unilateral action by nation states diminishes the risks of others worrying that they will lose out economically if they too act alone.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Behavior and Energy Conservation

An edited version of a memo I recently wrote to someone in the Obama administration:

In the next 20 years we face limited options in reducing our energy use by significantly transforming energy output. Even with the knowledge we have in hand today, significantly reducing the percentage of coal and natural gas will take many decades especially in the light of the projected rise in energy demand. Meanwhile, carbon capture and sequestration has no chance of reaching significant deployment in the near term. As such, in the near term promoting energy efficiency and conservation is not just our best hope but one of our few hopes! That said, how important is the role of the individual citizen in such an effort?
Here I will argue that while changing individual behavior is of value; it is going to be an uphill battle and there are things we can learn from other fields before proceeding. What is more important I will argue, is to change individual attitudes toward the need for collective action of us all as a nation.
The Limits on Behavioral Change: When it comes to energy conservation and efficiency, individual behavior falls into two groups – one off actions, like buying a more efficient appliance and repeated actions, like turning off lights. In both areas, findings of psychology and behavioral economics highlight the significant challenge to promoting such change: i. Significant inelasticity of demand for energy means that price driven change requires large rises in markets that are regulated “for the public good” and subject to political constraints. ii. Even where price begets change at the outset, inurnment to the change overtime combines with habit to reassert old behavior. iii. The overvaluation of money in hand today over savings in the future, forces subsidies to promote energy efficiency upgrades that are extremely costly when done at scale. These are not “killer” objections, but they imply the need to proceed with great care in understanding the range and persistence of conservation efforts that rely in the individual actor acting in isolation.
Alternatives: The problems just alluded to arise from the role of the individual choice in the causal chain that aims to increase efficiency and conservation. But three alternatives sidestep these problems: i. The imposition of universal “upstream” appliance standards. (The most salient success of which has been in the area of home refrigerators.) ii. Exploiting the design environment to bring about changes in behavior subconsciously. (For example, the mere placement of a light switch.) iii. Using elements of smart grids and information networks that can communicate directly with and control (thermostats, appliances etc) in the home environment. But such alternatives, if widely implemented still implicate the individual citizen since they will be hard to defend without citizen acquiescence. Now instead of asking consumer to choose efficient appliances over (upfront) cheaper inefficient ones, we are asking them to acquiesce to their government banning sale of the latter. And instead of asking consumers to turn down air conditioners during peak demand, we might be asking them to cede control to their utility provider.
The Upshot: Winning such acquiescence involves a renegotiation of the social contract. It involves winning citizen support for policies that (in effect) will limit choices that may be preferred in the short run. This is more than “nudging” (a la Sunstein). This is not easy to do. But it is not without precedent. Anti-smoking efforts, seat belt campaigns and above all, social security all involved not just a nudge but the creation of national consensus about the need for us to invite regulation for our own good. The development of an effective climate policy is not simply a technical challenge of science but also a challenge of how to involve the citizens with a sense of ownership over the choices we face.
Recommendations: in the light of these considerations , I would urge:
1. Careful examination of the effectiveness of individual behavioral change programs.
2. Greater use of upstream appliance standards.
3. Use of the design environment to produce energy efficiency and conservation.
4. Mechanisms that directly control the home environment without consumer actions.
5. But above all, an examination of the broader issue of how one can win support of evolving national policy.