What accounts for 8% of global greenhouse gas emissions and is larger than the emissions of every entire country except China? It is direct energy use by US households. Our homes account for 38% of US national emissions (626 million metric tons of carbon per year) and 8% of global emissions. Is there a way to attack this juicy target?
In a November 2009 PNAS paper, Thomas Dietz, et al, argue that behavioral changes within the household sector can cut emissions by 20% within 10 years, reducing national emissions by 7.4% (123 metric tons of carbon per year). This alone would be slightly larger than the total national emissions of France. The authors analyze 17 types of household actions, combining potential emissions reduction in each case with estimated behavioral plasticity (proportion of current nonadopters who could be induced to take action). This assumes that effective interventions (not just regulation and standards) are put in place quickly -- combinations of appeals, information, financial incentives, reduction of transaction costs for taking action, and social influences -- to break down barriers to change. The last item (social influence) could take advantage of both physical and Internet-based social networks to alter social norms.
Looking closely at the 17 behavioral changes, nearly 72% of the emissions reduction would require either one-time investments or purchases (weatherization, more efficient HVAC/appliances/cars), which would have to be balanced by financial incentives, cost reductions, as well as ongoing savings from reduced energy use. The remainder of the savings would depend entirely on low-cost or no-cost choices, such as lowering laundry/water temperatures, thermostat setbacks, line drying, driving behavior, etc.
I can see a combination of national and local campaigns to inform and mobilize people to act, supplemented by social influences. If schools and businesses joined the effort, the emissions reduction could be much more. The encouraging thing is that this doesn't depend on new technologies or complex policies. Efficiency standards are increasing for appliances and cars, but there will be a significant time lag to serious emissions reductions in a business-as-usual scenario. I think the authors are right that behavioral change can cut through that circuitous path and buy us valuable time. Cutting emissions in the near term is worth much more than cutting the same amount of emissions in later years.