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World Environment Day: Greening household behaviour

5 June 2013
by Patrick Love

World Environment DayDo you suffer from Lord Henry Wotton syndrome? He’s the chap in Oscar Wilde’s Picture of Dorian Gray who said “To get back my youth I would do anything in the world, except take exercise, get up early, or be respectable”. It’s an attitude we all have to something or other we feel is desirable, but not to the point of making much of an effort. Saving the environment falls into that category for many people, but the good news for the planet is that the OECD has identified a group of people who “believe that sacrifices will be necessary to solve environmental problems”.

These “environmentally motivated” citizens form one of three groups identified in Greening Household Behaviour, based on the Environmental Policy and Individual Behaviour Change (EPIC) survey carried out in 2011 in 12,000 households in 11 OECD countries. The other two groups are the “environmental sceptics” who believe that environmental problems are exaggerated; and the “technological optimists” who believe that the problems are real, but that technological innovations are key to solving them.

You could divide the respondents in various other ways too, by age for example. In six of the eleven countries, older respondents were more likely to agree that their own generation bore significant responsibility for solving environmental problems, and that these problems should not be simply left for future generations.

Since the report is based on a survey, it’s interesting to try to spot differences between what people say they are prepared to do, and what they actually do (and what you do you yourself). Around 60% of respondents for example said they’d be willing to pay more for electricity generated from renewable sources for instance. One that intrigued me was the 45% of people who claimed they always washed clothes in cold water. Everybody I know is part of the 12% who answered “never” to that one, but I live in profligate Paris. How about you? Do you always, often, occasionally or never turn of equipment that has a stand-by function? Look at table 3.12 to see how you compare.

Apart from water and energy, the survey covers transport, waste generation, recycling, and food consumption, the theme of this year’s World Environment Day. The UN chose food to highlight the fact that while 1 in every 7 people in the world go to bed hungry and more than 20,000 children under the age of 5 will die today from hunger, 1.3 billion tonnes of food is wasted every year. This is equivalent to the same amount produced in the whole of sub-Saharan Africa.

We talked about this subject a few years ago on the blog, following the publication of a UK report that estimated that the average household threw away food and drink worth £40 ($65) per month, or around 15% of the shopping budget. Respondents to the Greening Household Behaviour survey report that approximately 10% of food is thrown away. There is a big difference from one country to another, ranging from 6% in France to 14% in Israel and 15% in Korea. Younger respondents report higher levels of food waste. Those concerned with natural resource depletion are less likely to throw food away.

They’re also more likely to buy organic, but here the cross-country differences are even more striking. Australians and Canadians aren’t really willing to pay much more for organic fruit and vegetables (a 5% price increase), while Koreans would accept a 23% hike. The reported willingness-to-pay for meat and poultry that takes animal welfare into account varies from 10% to 20%. Surprisingly (to me at least) the report says that “no significant pattern is found between income and expenditure […] for organic fruit and vegetables nor for meat and poultry labelled as taking animal welfare into account”.

Demand for electricity is another behaviour that doesn’t depend on income levels, but in this case the poor don’t have alternative choices. So without additional policy measures, they’re likely to suffer as a result of higher energy prices. Likewise, water conservation could be improved by according needs-based grants for water efficiency investments, or giving grants to tenants, who often don’t agree to pay to improve a home they don’t own.

How about this household? My colleague Liisa-Maija Harju has been looking at whether the OECD practices what it preaches regarding sustainable buildings, water use and waste management. To mark World Environment Day, OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurria has announced that the Organisation will be introducing a carbon pricing initiative based on an internal “carbon tax” on air travel of €20 per tonne to “reflect the cost of carbon emissions in OECD staff travel [and] encourage management and staff to give greater consideration to environmental aspects in making their travel decisions and arrangements”.

As Douglas Adams says in The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul: “It can hardly be a coincidence that no language on earth has ever produced the expression, ‘As pretty as an airport.”

Useful links

Serge Tomasi of OECD’s Development Co-operation Directorate on Putting green growth at the heart of development

OECD work on the environment

OECD work on green growth and sustainable development

4 Responses
  1. arthur permalink
    June 5, 2013

    nice article. big “like” for the internal travel carbon tax.

    as for “willing to pay more for electricity generated from renewable sources”. I do, our entire household does. We signed up with the ONLY provider in France that produces an amount of renewable energy that is 100% equivalent to your consumption. All the other providers buy certificates to sell you “green” energy. That’s just not the same, it’s mostly rubbish actually. Ours is a cooperative too, which makes you feel good because you know they’re in for the long run and they’re promoting growth of a RenE industry in this country.

    so, Patrick and readers – are you ready to join the 60%? (although I’m afraid in France we’re more like 6%, will check the data later)

  2. Malcolm Gain permalink
    June 5, 2013

    An interesting an thought-provoking article, but I would have preferred not to see the word “same” in the following sentence: “This is equivalent to the same amount produced in the whole of sub-Saharan Africa.” and as a linguist I take exception to the sweeping generalization of the last sentence, which to my mind weakens the whole text. I strongly doubt that Douglas Adams or Patrick Love have surveyed all of the many languages of New Guinea, taking into account the Cargo Cult, where aircraft are adored as divinities dropping manna from heaven? It is not entirely impossible that an expression akin to “as pretty as an airport” might exist in one of these, but it would take months or even years to ascertain or disprove. It is unfortunate to end on a quote that is worse than uesless.

  3. July 16, 2013

    Excellent article which brings a lot of statistics to light. I appreciated the facts about food being thrown away. I have found from the experiences of my own family going through four generations how this has changed. Our grandparents were rural farmers who worked hard and appreciated every grain they cropped, our parents who were born into the new consumerist society still held deep respect for food. As for us, we wanted and we never suffered from want. We could say what we didn’t want. Finally our kids, do not really wonder where it comes from, probably cannot believe that people suffer from hunger, and even if they learn about it at school and television programs cannot really link it to their own reality. They dont think twice about waste, where it goes and who could have survived on their throwaways.

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