by Beck Collins
Society is facing potentially disastrous climate change impacts. The UK is at the brink of a looming energy gap as old power stations close with little to replace them, and much of this is because we simply consume too much energy. This is a problem because we currently heavily rely on energy that is produced by fossil fuels; only 11.3% of UK energy comes from renewable resources (DECC 2013). The UK Government has long been trying to tackle this by calling on people to reduce their personal energy use through various behavioural change campaigns. A host of research and academic literature supports this, and various government departments have commissioned studies attempting to get to the bottom of why we behave the way we do with energy. The government hopes to use information derived from these studies to design policies that will bring about a measurable difference; to design interventions that will change individual energy behaviour. The belief is that pulling the right ‘lever’ will bring about the desired behaviour. But is this right?
Increasingly, the Government has been calling on us to ‘Act on CO2’, demanding to know ‘Are You Doing Your Bit’. More recently it has started exploring ways we can be ‘nudged’ to do the right thing, and change our wasteful energy behaviours. The Feed-In Tariff has also been introduced; designed to encourage you to put your savings into buying a shiny solar panel to pop on your roof. All of this points the finger of blame to you, sonny-Jim; you personally. It’s your fault that we’re using too much energy, so it’s you that needs to change. Now take one of these colourful Energy Saving Trust ‘Top Ten Tips’ leaflets and sort yourself out.
Now I know some of us could be more careful with our gas and electricity use. I had to give myself twenty lashes last night when I walked past my study and realised I’d left my laptop plugged in all day. But by focusing narrowly on individuals and their naughty behaviour, we miss glaring contextual barriers to behaviour change. I’ve been looking into these questions while researching local sustainable energy projects in Birmingham as part of my PhD. I want to focus on two critical barriers to individual behaviour change that I’ve come to understand through my research; the energy system, and fuel poverty.
The energy system in the UK is basically a centralised beast. There are power stations burning fossil fuels, and there is the national grid that distributes the energy to individual houses. If I want to choose to get my energy from renewable resources, what I can do within that system is to buy a renewable energy technology specifically for my house. The price of installing a solar panel array has come down dramatically in Birmingham over the past couple of years, but £5000 is still more than I can winkle out of my research stipend. I guess I’ll have to go whistle! Over the past three years, however, Birmingham City Council has been installing photovoltaic (PV; solar panels for electricity) panels onto the homes of some of its tenants as part of the Birmingham Energy Savers (BES) project. For this project, Birmingham City Council used its borrowing power to bulk-buy the kit and install it at no cost to its tenants. Some of those tenants cut down their energy use (from conventional, fossil fuel sources) by as much as a half, and all they had to do was say ‘yes’. Without the Council’s input, they could not have done this.
Many of these tenants were in fuel poverty; my second barrier. There are real problems with exhorting the poor to save energy because most of them are already doing the best they can. When you pay for your energy through a prepay meter, you quickly become aware of how much energy you use and where it goes because you have to (one bath in 2010 on a British Gas prepay meter cost £5! a lesson that didn’t bear repeating!). Added to this, people in fuel poverty often live in poor quality housing which is very energy inefficient. Asking these people to ‘turn down their thermostat by 1 degree’ is not an option for such people who might be suffering from the type of respiratory diseases which are exacerbated by draughty and damp (i.e. cold) homes. It also assumes their heating system is up to date enough to actually have a thermostat. These individuals might well be already saving as much as they possibly can, but are still not warm enough to stay healthy. These homes need to be made more energy efficient. If a person is in fuel poverty, we can assume they don’t have the £12,000 needed to insulate a solid wall property.
Both of these issues demonstrate the limitations on focusing on individuals as the site of change. Some people cannot reduce their energy use; they’re already forced to be as careful as they can. Some people must not reduce the energy they use; any less and they would fall ill. In either case, people are limited in their choices as to how clean their energy is, in a national electricity and heating system which is not ultimately designed to be fed by renewable energy. It is literally impossible for individuals to make the kind of choices that would lead to radical reductions in energy use that are needed. It falls to energy companies, governments at all levels, engineers and regulating bodies to creatively work to bring about that change. The question is not how individuals can be made to change their energy behaviour. It is towards the wider system which restricts behavioural choices that questions need to be addressed.
DECC (2013) Digest of UK Energy Statistics 2013. Department of Energy and Climate Change. [Online] Available from: https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/225045/statistics_press_notice_2013.pdf
Beck tries to live as environmentally low impact a life as possible. However she is disappointed that ‘biodegradable plastic bags’ are not actually that biodegradable. That one in her compost bin has been there for two years now.