Pro-environmental behaviours reduce energy consumption

Pro-environmental behaviours reduce energy consumption

One approach to the diminishing reversibility of global warming, when energy use in our world exceeds energy availability, is to practice pro-environmental behaviours to reduce energy consumption. By definition, these behaviors should minimize one’s negative impact on the environment or possibly benefit it (Kollmuss, 2002). Yet, why don’t people who are concerned about our environment consistently practice these behaviours? What are the factors that influence their actions? Let’s look at some external and internal factors. Some external factors are social marketing for normative behaviours, financial incentives, infrastructural defaults and government policies.  Internal factors are those that influence the person such as awareness, knowledge, values, attitudes, cognition and emotions. A more thorough approach is to examine how internal factors align with external factors. In communities, especially, this alignment can produce the most significant and sustainable impacts for our Earth (Middlemiss et al., 2010) for the limited time it has left.

Which pro-environmental behaviours to change?

Firstly, some pro-environmental behaviours are worth changing more than others: to reduce energy consumption has more impact than to recycle or reduce plastic bag use in stores based on environmental impact analyses (Steg et al., 2014). They also advise that some behaviours are more amenable to change than others, especially when they are convenient, easy to do, fair, and do not seriously affect individual comfort. To be more precise, McKenzie-Mohr (2012) targeted the following conservation behaviours, from most likely to least likely to be changed by homeowners: weatherization; low flow showerheads; energy efficient heating, air conditioning, water heater and  appliances; furnace air filter changes; lowering thermostat for heat, laundry and hot water; and clothesline drying. Thus, his solution is to prioritize external factors, such as social media and economic incentives, on the least-likely-to-change behaviours first and not waste effort on internal factors.

Pro-environmental behaviours: internal factors

Older models of pro-environmental behaviours have focused on understanding and removing barriers to internal factors, such as education, awareness, attitudes, motivation, cognition, and emotions. Kollmuss et al., (2002) and McKenzie-Mohr (2012) argue that although informational strategies are effective when the pro-environmental behaviour is relatively convenient and not costly (in terms of money, time and effort), they fall short on bringing about significant change. They also argue that environmental attitudes only influence behavioural intentions without translating to action; furthermore, when those intentions are not sealed with documented commitment on the part of the homeowner, then again, action does not follow. For example, McKenzie-Mohr (2012) criticized the Canadian government’s 1998 One Tonne Challenge Program, designed to motivate Canadians to take personal action to reduce green house gas emission. The challenge overemphasized knowledge and awareness in a population that was already familiar with climate change. Furthermore, the challenge did not result in behavioural changes because target behaviours were not identified, and guidance was not given on how to bring about change. Yet, even if homeowners did understand and experience an emotional reaction to environmental degradation, they may still not act pro-environmentally because their strong emotions of fear, anger, helplessness and sadness may instead, lead to denial, distancing and disengagement defence mechanisms.

Pro-environmental behaviours: external factors

Indeed, external factors, such as  social marketing aimed at normative pro-environmental behavioural constructs, infrastructural defaults, and economic incentives have proven to be more successful than internal factors to reduce energy consumption (McKenzie-Mohr 2012). Behavioural science researchers stress that when behaviours are accepted and desirable, or normative, then action follows. For example, B.C. Hydro Power smart program (Klovance, R., 2009) demonstrate that providing feedback on homeowner’s bills of energy consumption by their neighbours, effectively makes the homeowners conserve energy in subsequent months. Also, infrastructural defaults to building codes can considerably effect change. Building codes and standards today are more energy efficient than in the past; looking ahead, the B.C. government proposes to move their Energy Step Code from voluntary to a minimum standard by 2032 (“Discussion 6- Stronger Building Codes and Standards”, 2018). Together with financial incentives in the form of direct rebates and payments for retrofits, government influenced external factors do impact homeowners to conserve.  However, Kollmus et al. (2002) advise that the removal of financial incentives often reverses pro-environmental behaviours, if the homeowners don’t possess fundamental values to conserve. Steg et al. (2014) implore policy makers to collaborate with the homeowners and their communities to design feasible interventions that align with their self-perceptions and motivations.

Coming full circle to communities

Coming full circle, Steg et al. (2014) state that although external factors have the greatest influence on behavioural changes, some internal factors, especially the motivational antecedents of the community members, determine the sustainability of the pro-environmental behaviours to reduce energy consumption. Expanding further, Middlemiss et al. (2014) suggest a collective model that encompasses both factors: empowering individual and cultural capacities, as well as community infrastructure and organizational partnerships to lower carbon footprint in homes. For example, they describe two grassroots projects fueled by very different personal and cultural needs. One, in Bollington, U.K., showed how personal capacities for volunteerism and professionalism among their members propelled their effort to build a low carbon community. The other, about U.S. Native American communities living on the Great Plains, demonstrated how their cultural need for self-empowerment and respect for their environment propelled their project. In 1994, the Native communities initially fought for the rights to hydroelectric dams on their land; by 2005, they not only embraced energy conservation, but also expanded into renewable energies such as a large wind farm and into becoming a majority shareholder in an energy company. The authors also criticize that the promotion of only individual consumerist behaviours, however green, counter community collectivism and represent a small effort compared to developing community capacities. Simply said, community-based, pro-environmental efforts create the most impact for our environment.

Essentially, the study of pro-environmental behaviours is complex and difficult to conceptualize in a single model. Only when our homes and communities become low carbon can our behaviours become truly pro-environmental, that is, causing minimal negative impact on our natural world and possibly benefiting it. Time will tell, for the consequences of inaction or refusal to energy conserve will only result in faster degradation of the beautiful world we know and the convenience, comfort, and security we currently cherish.


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