The Role of Individual and Household Behavior in Decarbonization

Date01 November 2017
11-2017 NEWS & ANALYSIS 47 ELR 10941
The Role of
Individual and
Behavior in
by Michael P. Vandenbergh and
Paul C. Stern
Michael P. Vandenbergh is David Daniels Allen Distinguished
Chair of Law, Director, Climate Change Research Network,
and Co-director, Energy, Environment, and Land Use
Program, Vanderbilt University Law School. Paul C. Stern
is President and Senior Scholar, Social and Environmental
Research Institute, and Professor II, Norwegian University
of Science and Technology, Trondheim, Norway.
is Article, excerpted from Michael B. Gerrard &
John C. Dernbach, eds., Legal Pathways to Deep Decar-
bonization in the United States (forthcoming in 2018
from ELI), asks why household behavior matters for
deep decarbonization, and how laws, policies, and pro-
grams that target behavior change can be employed to
facilitate decarbonization. e pathways set forth in the
Deep Decarbonization Pilot Project (DDPP) all pre-
sume widespread public acceptance of new policies, as
well as changes in household actions that directly aect
carbon emissions, mainly via consumer adoption of
technologies that have lower greenhouse gas footprints.
e best available research indicates that achieving the
rates of adoption included in the DDPP pathways is
indeed feasible; however, this will require more than
policies that require change or make adoption nan-
cially attractive. e most realistic analysis of the poten-
tial for change must consider the technical potential for
change, the behavioral plasticity, and the policy plastic-
ity, or the feasibility of adopting and implementing the
most commonly recommended interventions.
I. Introduction
is A rticle asks: why does household behavior mat-
ter for deep decarbonization, and how can laws, policies,
and programs that target behavior cha nge be employed
to facilitate decarbonization? Individuals and households
can aect carbon emissions in multiple ways through their
behavior as environmental activists, by oering support or
opposition to environmental public policies in their citizen
roles, by exerting inuence within organizations of which
they are a part, by making investment decisions ba sed on
carbon considerations, and by acquiring and using energy
and carbon-emitting goods and services or meeting their
needs in ways that do not emit greenhouse gases. Each of
these roles ca n be critical for achieving deep decarboniza-
tion. Our primary, although not exclusive, focus is on the
roles of individuals and households as consumers, both of
energy and of goods and services that have carbon foot-
prints through their life cycles.1
e Article explores the implications of insights about
behaviors a ecting individual and household energ y u se,
particularly from the noneconomic social and behavioral
sciences,2 for legal and policy interventions intended to
achieve the goal of the Deep Decarbonization Pathways
Project (DDPP)—the reduction of net U.S. greenhouse gas
emissions by at least 80% from 1990 levels by 2050.3 We
examine the role t hat such behavior plays (explicitly and
1. See Paul C. Stern, Toward a Coherent eory of Environmentally Signicant
Behavior, 56 J. S. I 407, 407-24 (2000); Michael P. Vandenbergh
& Benjamin K. Sovacool, Individual Behaviour, the Social Sciences, and Cli-
mate Change, in C C L, E E  E-
 L 92 (Daniel Farber & Marjan Peeters eds., Edward Elgar
Pub. 2016); omas Dietz et al., Household Action Can Provide a Behavioral
Wedge to Rapidly Reduce US Carbon Emissions, 106 P. N’ A. S.
1842, 1842-45 (2009).
2. Consumers are inuenced by the prices of the goods and services they may
acquire, but these are not the only important inuences, nor do consum-
ers process price information in quite the ways simple economic analyses
might expect. N R C, E U: T H
D (Paul C. Stern & Elliot Aronson eds., 1984); N R-
 C, I E D A (Paul C. Stern
ed., 1984). See also R H. T  C R. S, N (2d
ed. 2009).
3. J H. W  ., E  E E,
I.  ., US 2050 R, V 2: P I  D
D   U S (2015) [hereinafter US 2050
R, V 2]; J H. W  ., E  E-
 E, I.  ., US 2050 R: P  D
D   U S (2014) [hereinafter US 2050
R], available at
loads/2015/09/US_DDPP_Report_Final.pdf. See also Alexander E. Mac-
Donald et al., Future Cost-Competitive Electricity Systems and eir Impact
on US CO2 Emissions, 6 N C C 526, 526-31 (2016),
abstract available at
Authors’ Note: e authors thank William Rawson and Edward
Strohbehn Jr. for insightful comments on an earlier draft. e
authors also thank Madison Renner and Stephanie Biggs for excellent
research assistance.
Copyright © 2017 Environmental Law Institute®, Washington, DC. Reprinted with permission from ELR®,, 1-800-433-5120.
implicitly) in the four DDPP pathways, and we explore
additional opportunities for behavioral interventions to
contribute to achieving deep decarbonization.
We should be clear at the outset about what we include
in the category of “behaviors aecting individual and
household energy use.” In short, we include both the adop-
tion or uptake of household technologies and equipment,
and the use and maintenance of technologies and equip-
ment, in ways t hat aect emissions of greenhouse gases.
As elaborated elsewhere,4 seven specic classes of house-
hold behavior ca n aect carbon emissions. Some of these
involve changes in the use of household equipment t hat
reduce energy consumption by reducing energy services—
what is often called energy conservation but is more appro-
priately called curtailment.5
ese include changing daily behaviors regarding heat-
ing and cooling levels, appliance and motor vehicle use,
and so on (D), and adjusting the water temperature in
home equipment (A). Others reduce consumption without
curtailing energy services, through better equipment main-
tenance (M); adoption of home weatherization and more
ecient heating and cooling equipment (W); shifting to
more energy-ecient motor vehicles and major household
equipment other than space conditioning (E); and adopt-
ing renewable energy technologies for the household (R).
Households can also, given appropriate information, make
choices that reduce the life-c ycle emissions (L) embodied
in the goods and services they purchase. Unless otherwise
noted, when we refer to “behavior,” we mean individua l
and household behavior of the above types.
e factors aecting individual and household behavior
dier per behavioral type, as noted below. Also, the oppor-
tunities for behavior change vary with time scales. On an
immediate time scale, change s in usa ge of existing equip-
ment (D and A) may oer the most eect ive steps toward
deep decarbonization. Over a decade or two, adoption and
use of lower emission equipment and acceptance of new
technologies and energy policies and programs can often
make t he greatest dierence. On the time scale of a gen-
eration or more, changes in lifestyles, social organization,
built infrastructure, and public acceptance of major policy
directions may be critical to achieving deep decarbon-
ization goa ls.6 Our focus is on individual and household
behavior, but many social and behavioral science insights
are also important for understanding the behavior of cor-
porations, smal l businesse s, government agencies, a nd
other organizations at these time scales.
Although the DDPP focuses on the emissions reduction
target for 2050, the carbon emissions pathway bet ween
4. Dietz et al., supra note 1; Kimberly S. Wolske & Paul C. Stern, Contribu
  
sumer Behavior, in P  C C: H P-
, I,  R (Susan Clayton & Christie Manning eds.,
forthcoming 2018).
5. Paul C. Stern & Gerald T. Gardner, Psychological Research and Energy Policy,
36 A. P 329, 329-42 (1981).
6. See Paul C. Stern et al.,   
 , 1 N E (2016),
abstract available at
now and 2050 will have an important eect on the abil-
ity to limit temperature increases to 2oC over pre-indus-
trial levels, the ultimate goal of deep dec arbonization. If
U.S. emissions are higher than expected bet ween now and
2050, an 80% reduction in 2050 will be inadequate; if
they a re lower than expected, there may be some play in
the timing or magnitude of the 2050 goal.7 As a result, we
also examine the role of near-term behavior cha nge in the
DDPP modeling and how additional near-term behavior
change can accelerate emissions reductions.
It is important to recognize t hat governments are not
the only organizations that can drive the kinds of behavior
change necessary to achieve deep decarbonization. Private
and public initiatives have played important roles in energy
behavior change in recent decades, and here we examine
the potential roles of both public and private governance
in achieving the behavior changes that ca n contribute to
deep decarbonization. By private governance, we mean the
performance of traditionally governmental functions (e.g.,
reducing negative externalities, promoting creation or man-
agement of public goods) by private organizations.8 Private
governance occurs through ma ny of the same instruments
as public governance, including prescriptive rules, market-
leveraging approaches, and informational governance.9
In the are a of climate-relevant behavior, private orga-
nizations conduct public information campaigns a nd
training programs re garding ecient driving behaviors,
and many private organizations are involved i n energy or
carbon labelin g progra ms that aect t he acqu isition a nd
use of more ecient equipment. Private organiz ations
also set and monitor standa rds for susta inable sheries,
forestry, coee, bananas, palm oil, and ma ny other prod-
ucts.10 I n many cases, these private standards and certi-
cation organizations provide information that enables
individua ls to reduce their carbon footprints outside the
areas of new technology a cquisition by facilit ating their
ability to select various types of low-c arbon goods and
services and their abilit y to use these goods and service s
in more ecient ways.
As a result, when we refer to “laws, policies, and pro-
grams” in this Article, we include these types of governance
7. In other words, the shape of the emissions curve over the next several de-
cades matters. It is only with reductions that begin in the near term that an
80% emissions reduction will suce, and even then, emissions will need
to be negative within the several decades after 2050 if 2°C is the goal. For
a discussion of the mitigation eor ts necessary to achieve the 2°C goal, see
M P. V  J G, B P: T
P G R  C C ch.2 (forthcoming
8. In the past several decades, successful climate and energy behavior change
initiatives have been undertaken by governments at all levels, but also by
corporations, advocacy and civic groups, religious organizations, universi-
ties, hospitals, and other private organizations. See Michael P. Vandenbergh,
Private Environmental Governance, 99 C L. R. 129 (2013).
9. See Sarah E. Light & Eric W. Orts, Parallels in Public and Private Environ
mental Governance, 5 M. J. E.  A. L. 1 (2015).
10. Michael P. Vandenbergh & Jonathan M. Gilligan, Beyond Gridlock, 40
C. J. E. L. 217 (2016); Paul C. Stern & Michael P. Vandenbergh,
, in O-
 H  I E G (E.
Brousseau et al. eds., forthcoming 2018).
Copyright © 2017 Environmental Law Institute®, Washington, DC. Reprinted with permission from ELR®,, 1-800-433-5120.

To continue reading

Request your trial

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT