Do big green changes really grow from little ones?
BRITISH physicist David MacKay has a confronting message about what’s necessary for our society to really go green: “If everyone does a little, we’ll achieve only a little,” he says.
In his book, Sustainable energy – without the hot air (available free online) he analyses the relative energy footprint of different parts of the UK economy, such as transport, heating and cooling, and food and farming.
Professor MacKay argues that we must break our “fossil fuel addiction” for three reasons: we’ll run out some day; we need to avoid dangerous climate change; and we need to find secure sources of energy.
A key part of doing that, he says, is to reduce energy demand. But we mustn’t be mistaken about the kinds of things that really make a difference. For instance, unplugging your mobile phone charger will subtract only a “tiny tiny fraction of your total energy consumption”.
“The amount of energy saved by switching off the phone charger, 0.01 kWh [per day], is exactly the same as the energy used by driving an average car for one second,” he writes. “Obsessively switching off the phone-charger is like bailing the Titanic with a teaspoon. Do switch it off, but please be aware how tiny a gesture it is.”
Illustrations by Robin Cowcher
In contrast, air travel is one of the true big-ticket items for individuals. He found that the energy used in taking a return-flight from the UK to South Africa is “nearly as big as the energy used by driving an average car 50 km per day, every day, all year”.
Likewise, although the impact of imported manufactures – including vehicles, whitegoods, machinery, electronic equipment and steel – aren’t normally added to Britain’s footprint, their embodied energy use accounts for more than heating and cooling combined.
For householders, he found that two of the best ways to reduce energy use are installing solar hot water and turning the temperature down on your heating (and up on your air conditioning).
“Turning the thermostat down is the single most effective energy-saving technology available to a typical person – every degree you turn it down will reduce your heating costs by 10%; and heating is likely to be the biggest form of energy consumption in most British buildings,” he writes.
But can small personal changes ever add up to something more significant?
BehaviourWorks Australia, a research collaboration based at the Monash Sustainability Institute, is exploring exactly this question. Earlier this year, it hosted Professor John Thørgesen, a Danish academic who specialises in social and environmental marketing.
In 2009, he co-authored a report called Simple and Painless? published by the World Wildlife Fund. It argues that global environmental problems can’t be met through “marginal lifestyle changes”. The foot-in-the-door approach – easy steps such as switching light globes or showerheads – can only be justified when it’s linked to more ambitious behaviour, such as active citizenship and activism.
It also contends that encouraging householders to go green for personal gain – that is, reduced bills – doesn’t stimulate the kind of broad attitude shift required.
Dr Jim Curtis, from BehaviourWorks, says we need to understand the way people perceive themselves once they complete those simple steps. “We have to avoid thinking that we’ve done our bit. We have to link small actions to bigger ones by fostering a sense of citizenship that motivates people to make more ambitious changes,” he says.