Parallels exist, too, between what drove the increase in seat belt use to what might encourage people to turn off lights and computers. In the 1980s, seat belts were not widely used, just as turning off lights and computers when not in use are behaviors that few Americans commit to now. But a public information campaign for seat belt laws ultimately convinced motorists to use seat belts; so too turning off lights and computers could benefit from similar campaigns. “Not wearing seat belts can [also] carry the threat of fines,” notes Wei, a tactic that could be considered to encourage energy efficiency.
Unlike private organizations that target short-term consumer electricity savings, such as OPOWER, Greenblatt and Wei are using their behavior analogs to determine the full potential rates of adoption for energy saving measures. “We are assuming that if a campaign is designed as well as possible based on past experience, we would achieve a certain percent of participation,” Greenblatt says.
Such “realistic adoption rates” grounded in past data can help quantify household actions. “We expect the behavior change savings to be higher than the two percent OPOWER observes, and probably higher than some other previous studies,” Greenblatt says, adding that it’s too early to tell how significant the household savings could be.
Such savings are key as U.S. households are responsible for 626 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions per year, nearly 40 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions and 8 percent of global emissions. That amount is larger than the emissions of any other country except China and larger than the emissions of any U.S. industry.
Still, ecologist and sociologist Thomas Dietz of Michigan State University remains optimistic. “I often hear energy experts who have never studied behavior say that behavior doesn’t change,” says Dietz, who is not involved in the LBNL project. “But if we learn anything from the last 50 years, it’s that behavior changes in huge ways.” Dietz led a study of household energy consumption, published online August 31, 2010, in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA, that looked at the effects of programs trying to influence energy use, many of which were very effective. “We also looked to programs that have tried to change other kinds of behavior for analogies. I’m glad to hear that others are following this line of work,” he says. “It’s one of the best tools we have for getting a realistic estimate of what behavioral change can accomplish.”
Dietz explains that even very conservative estimates suggest a change in energy use behavior by households could lead to over a 7 percent reduction in total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, or more than 1.5 percent of global emissions. To put this into perspective, that reduction is 44 percent of the goal that President Obama set for the nation, roughly equal to the total emissions of France.