The problem and the opportunity

Are you interested in understanding more about what you can do to help address climate change?

In Australia, we have one of the highest rates of per person carbon pollution in the world. The good news is there are simple things you can do to help yourself and your community reduce emissions and live more sustainably, all while saving money, spending time with friends and getting healthier. Sounds pretty good right?

What’s the problem?

It's not just governments and businesses that need to take action. A study by Ivanova et al from 2015 found that more than 60% of global carbon emissions can be traced back to household-level consumption.

We also know that technological fixes alone cannot solve the problem of climate change. The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change advises that big shifts in consumer behaviour and lifestyle are also essential to limit global warming below 2° Celsius. 

In developed economies like Australia and the United States, where per capita emissions are over 5 times higher than the global average, behavioural changes must include:

  • cutting down on the amount of meat consumed per person;

  • modal shifts in transportation away from single passenger vehicles to public transport;

  • the uptake of home renewable energy systems and energy efficiency upgrades to our buildings; and

  • reducing waste and household consumption of material resources. 

But psychological studies show people find changing consumption and lifestyle habits difficult, even when they care about climate change and the environment. This difficulty stems primarily from cognitive and behavioural biases, including people’s strong tendency to follow the path of least resistance and to favour short-term gains over long-term consequences.

We also struggle with the fear that our individual choices have little effect on the problem of climate change. It’s overwhelming and guilt-inducing.

You can find a huge amount of information online about this problem and what you can do to help combat it. But many of us find it hard to know which pieces of advice to follow, and we often come up against legitimate and frustrating barriers when we try to take up generic suggestions on sustainable living. (“How can I install rooftop solar when I’m renting?”, “I don’t have time to make my own bloody toothpaste!”, “There’s no public transport near my house so I have no choice but to drive” etc.)

There’s a very obvious and crucial role for government policies and regulations to help reduce these barriers to sustainable living. Climate change is a complex problem, however, so to combat it effectively we need solutions and behaviour change at all levels of our societal system, including at the individual, household and community level. A couple of thousand of us, acting together, really can make a considerable dent in greenhouse gases and we can do it pretty rapidly.

So what's the the opportunity?

There's evidence that when we make more sustainable choices, like cutting down on meat or installing solar panels on our rooftop, it has a significant flow-on effect in our communities. This is called The Neighbourhood Effect - a phenomenon whereby our peer group’s behaviours and signals in our environment powerfully shape our own choices.

For example, one big Harvard study that spanned a 10-year period in California found that people were more likely to install solar panels on their rooftops if their neighbours had solar panels, and amazingly, this was irrespective of things like voter preference (see coverage of the study and a link to the paper here). So in many instances, you convince people around you to change their behaviour, not by arguing, but simply by demonstrating leadership through visibly changing your own behaviour. 

Some more good news:

The economics of sustainability have shifted dramatically. Anything that increases resource efficiency and reduces waste can now unlock financial value. Think about all of the multimillion dollar collaborative consumption companies that have sprung up in the last decade, like AirBnB, Uber and GoGet. Their success comes from making much better use of previously under-utilised resources.

Better resource efficiency is a cornerstone of environmental sustainability. If you buy less stuff you don’t need, reduce your energy usage and food waste, genuinely care for your things so they last longer, grow and share food with your neighbours, and cut down on petrol costs each week, you can bet you’ll be saving thousands of dollars per year.

There are also simple and scientifically-tested solutions to overcome many of the cognitive biases preventing people from making sustainable lifestyle changes, and these solutions are yet to be implemented systematically in Western countries to help households reduce their carbon emissions. Examples of these techniques include gamification, leveraging social norms, commitment-making and implementation intentions, conditional rewards, loss aversion and habit loops.

That’s the system we are building, through our web platform and mobile application. Our digital user interface will apply these discoveries in behavioural science to make it easy, fun, financially rewarding and social for you to reduce your carbon footprint and adopt green habits.

Imagine:

  • receiving practical suggestions on the types of emission reductions you could make across all sectors (i.e. food, transport, finance, waste, consumption, energy and water);

  • seeing what’s most impactful and most convenient for you;

  • personalised suggestions that are tailored to suit your personal preferences (e.g. expected financial savings, level of effort, your household type, your chosen focus area) and location (helping you to easily support community-level environmental initiatives and growing the market share of nearby eco-friendly businesses); and

  • with information framed in the ways that are scientifically proven to help you build green habits and change your behaviour.

We’ve got a fair way to go though, so we need your input and support.

In the meantime, here are 4 things you can start doing today to help reduce your carbon footprint:

If everyone ate the Word Health Organisation's recommended daily intake of meat of 90 grams a day, then we'd be about a third of the way to staying below 2 degrees of global warming, just from that one change.

  1. Cut down on meat - it's the single most impactful thing you can do to reduce your ecological footprint. This is because of the huge amount of energy, water and land it takes to grow livestock, along with the grain to feed them. You can start by trying to eat meat a couple of times a week rather than every day, and go from there. Based on information from the World Health Organisation, a diet that consists mostly of plant-based foods with whole grains is the healthiest option for most people and cutting down on red meat in particular reduces your risk of a developing a number of different cancers.

  2. Buy GreenPower! If you are a renter or can't afford solar panels, you could think about buying GreenPower through your electricity provider. GreenPower is a national scheme that adds renewable energy into the electricity grid, over and above the amount legislated in the Renewable Energy Target, when you consume electricity. The electricity you consume is either partially or fully offset by the GreenPower added into the grid, and encourages the growth of renewable energy in Australia. For an average household, buying 100% GreenPower costs the equivalent of just over two extra cups of coffee a week, so if you're happy to pay a bit extra to offset your energy, jump on this option. For those in Canberra - you can call ActewAGL on 13 14 93 (have your account number ready from a recent electricity bill) and ask them to switch you to GreenPower! They supply GreenPower through their accredited scheme 'Green Choice' - you can also sign up online here: http://tinyurl.com/actewaglgreen

  3. Start hanging your clothes out to dry, instead of using your dryer. Dryers are on of the biggest energy sucks in a typical household. If you start air drying your clothes using a clothes hanger, you'll cut your emissions while saving money on your next electricity bill. 

  4. Plan your week so you catch the bus or cycle to and from work one day a week. For Canberrans, you can check out the local bus timetables and routes here, and, if you're a bit rusty on the bicycle, check out Pedal Power, a local Canberra business that offers classes for adult cyclists to get them confident using Canberra's roads and amazing array of cycle paths.

Lastly, if you'd like to get involved with The Neighbourhood Effect, you can email us at info@theneighbourhoodeffect.com.au or contact us here.