The Short List: The Most Effective Actions U.S. Households Can Take to Curb Climate Change

The Short List: The Most Effective Actions U.S. Households Can Take to Curb Climate Change


From Environment magazine, September-October 2008

The U.S. Congress, presidential candidates, lobbyists, and political commentators have focused much of their attention lately on the need for policies to limit the United States’ contribution to climate change. They promote and debate cap-and-trade systems, stricter automobile fuel economy standards, investments in renewable energy and “clean coal,” and other policies to change the behavior of energy and manufacturing corporations. The debates presume that these policies will reverberate through the entire economy, and their advocates seem willing to wait—in some cases for decades—for that to happen.

These policy discussions have been strangely silent about a huge reservoir of potential for reducing carbon emissions and mitigating climate change that can be tapped much more quickly and directly.1 U.S. households account for about 38 percent of national carbon emissions through their direct actions, a level of emissions greater than that of any entire country except China and larger than the entire U.S. industrial sector.2 By changing their selection and use of household and motor vehicle technologies, without waiting for new technologies to appear, making major economic sacrifices, or losing a sense of well-being, households can reduce energy consumption by almost 30 percent—about 11 percent of total U.S. consumption.3

Potential savings of this magnitude have existed for at least three decades.4 It is therefore reasonable to ask why the potential remains largely unfulfilled and what can be done to achieve it. Lack of financial incentives may be one answer, but as the analysis in this article shows, much of the unfulfilled potential for reduction is achievable at low-, no-, or negative-cost. Other partial explanations include difficulties in financing expensive home retrofits, limited ability of renters to change energy use in owners’ buildings, and the average householder’s limited amount of time and attention.5 All these explanations are important and deserve policy attention if potential savings are to be realized.

Perhaps crucially, however, households lack accurate, accessible, and actionable information on how best to achieve potential savings through their own steps. From a householder’s perspective, a desire to reduce carbon emissions, even combined with knowledge that doing so has net financial and environmental benefits, is insufficient to yield effective action unless that person knows which actions will produce the benefits. Available evidence indicates that although many householders are motivated, they lack the necessary knowledge to act. Moreover, their beliefs about which actions are most beneficial are often mistaken, and the most readily available sources of behavioral advice are not helpful.

When strategies are proposed for households, they often appear in laundry list format, giving little or no priority to effectiveness. It is easy for households that want to cope with rising gasoline prices and heating and cooling bills to respond by taking small actions under the impression they are saving energy, while they are actually making a negligible dent in their personal energy consumption. What are the most effective actions that households can take to save energy, and how can policymakers at all levels help households achieve these savings?

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