Posts Tagged ‘behaviour change’

It seems as environmental economists that a lot of our work involves translating carbon into monetary terms. What is the value of avoiding the emission of a tonne of carbon? Should we value it by the damage it would cause or by the opportunity (of the actions of which carbon is a byproduct of) lost by not emitting it?

Last night I went along to the launch of The DoNation – a very interesting concept that does almost the opposite – it provides a service for people to ask their friends to sponsor them – not with money, but through changing their behaviour over a period of time to reduce carbon. Examples of this include air drying your clothes instead of using a tumble dryer, going vegetarian a few days a week and cycling to work.

I ‘sponsored’ the London to Morocco bike ride that kicked off the first incarnation of the website by going vegetarian for 4 days a week. Last night we learnt that collectively we had saved 16 tonnes of carbon – enough to fly from London to Morocco every day for each day of the bike ride! Even better, many are still continuing their actions, leading a lower carbon lifestyle (although I have gone back to omnivorous ways most days of the week).

This concept to me is beautiful in several ways:

  1. Those who are concerned about climate change can ask their sponsors for something they actually want – and not through a roundabout way of asking for money and then buying carbon credits.
  2. It motivates people to change their behavior – from people who would never have changed their behavior otherwise to people who have already realised it would be a good idea but never got around to doing it; and
  3. It employs one of the biggest motivators to engender that behavior change – friendship (it has also, for me, kickstarted other friendships with its capacity as a great conversation starter – “I’m eating vegetarian today because this girl I know is cycling to Morocco…”).

To check out The DoNation and start Doing, head on over to www.TheDoNation.org.uk

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We had a trip to out of the pasture last week to see the play GREENLAND at the National Theatre. The play is still on…check it out here:

The programme has a summary of the Stern Review, a foreword from Professor Robert Watson, (Chief Scientific Officer of Defra) among many others, facts and a time line of greenhouse gas emissions and climate change research.

A few of us have been thinking for a long while as to how theatre can be used to communicate environmental messages. It’s interesting that while environmental conditions shape our lives so much, theatre in particular has been relatively silent on the topic. It’s a difficult one – what could the plot of such a play be? An apocalyptic future in which life as we know it is no more? We’ve seen it countless of times in the movies – both big Hollywood blockbusters and small independent films, but really that just provides empty entertainment, or worse, shuts people off rather than engage them in productive debate. Nobody wants to hear bad news.

GREENLAND playwrights chose a different strategy. They show the debate as it is happening today and as it affects people’s lives and psychology….all sorts of different people from deniers to activists and from scientists to civil servants. It was like our pasture on stage – a weird experience. But one that is as informative as it is engaging. Go and see it, it will make you think about what you can do as an individual and whether or how you can make a difference!

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Aldersgate Group event, 29th April, 2010: Priorities for the first 100 days of the new Government.

We may not know who will form the UK’s next Government, but we do know that they face environmental challenges that require urgent action. The latest report from the Aldersgate Group brings together research into the finance, skills and resource management policies required to enable the economy to make the transition to a low-carbon future. (“Accelerating the Transition”). Launching the report, a common theme was the need to simplify the range of regulations aimed to control carbon emissions in different sectors of the economy. These rules are devised to incentivise adaptation in each sector optimally, but how much do we know about the potential for adaptation?

Economics studies the costs and benefits of changes to human activity, but economists don’t get the chance to do real-life experiments to see how changes might work in practice. For example, we aren’t allowed to double the price of petrol for a week and see how people behave. The recent halting of UK air travel as a result of the Icelandic Ash Cloud provides us with a real experiment (unfortunately for the thousands of inconvenienced travellers) – how do people change behaviour when they can’t fly? Speaking at the Aldersgate Group event, a director at British Telecom said their video-conferencing business had risen by 35% during the travel suspension – evidence that substitutes for air travel can allow adaptation to low-carbon activities.  Last week’s closure of the air space in Scotland and Northern Ireland, and the weekend’s closure of some European air spaces have given travellers a further incentive to adopt alternative means of transport, or choices of destination.  It will be interesting to check whether the number of travellers choosing to fly to destinations within the UK and Europe decrease as a result.

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Throwing litter into bins rather than onto the street, using the stairs rather than the elevator, and recycling glass rather than throwing it away are all beneficial behaviours to ourselves and society at large.  However, a lot of the time people don’t carry out these positive behaviours, opting instead for the more negative alternatives.  Litter ends up on the street, people opt for the elevator rather than taking stairs, and glass gets thrown away in regular rubbish bins, if it even makes it to a bin.

 Economists carry out a lot of work on getting people to change behaviour and getting the incentives right to encourage behavioural change.  The Fun Theory website promotes what they call, well, the fun theory, which they describe as:

 “…something as simple as fun is the easiest way to change people’s behaviour for the better.”

 The website currently displays videos of three different projects carried out by the TheFunTheory.com that have incorporated fun into the three behaviour changes described above.  Unsurprisingly, the end results are very encouraging, with a ‘fun’ bin collecting 72kg of rubbish in a day, more than double of a nearby bin collecting 31kg of rubbish, the ‘fun’ stairs encouraging 66% more people than usual to choose the stairs rather than the elevator, and the ‘fun’ bottle bank being used by nearly 100 people, while a nearby conventional bottle bank was used just twice.

Of course there are the usual caveats, with the numbers from the nearby rubbish bin and bottle bank suffering from displacement activity as people chose to deposit their rubbish and glass into the ‘fun’ alternatives (I can also imagine some people running home for their empty bottles they were saving to bulk dump for another day to try out the ‘fun’ bottle bank that evening), and the expected lower numbers of users once the novelty runs out. 

Despite the disclaimers however, the theory is still intriguing, with ‘fun’ being used here as an economic factor to incentivise behavioural change.  It’d be interesting to test out the numbers against more conventional incentives such as offering people a small amount of money instead.  For example, if offering people 5p per bottle deposited at the bottle bank achieves the same bottle deposit results as we’ve seen at thefuntheory, this will give a lower bound estimate of the value of thefuntheory invention (the estimate is a lower bound because while the bottle deposits are accounted for, the ‘hidden benefit’ of the social interaction between the various users and bystanders is not accounted for).

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