The Race for the Green House

During the “space race”, as we called it back in the Atomic Age, US inventor Paul C. Fisher developed a pen with a gas-pressurised cartridge that he claimed could write in zero gravity. NASA bought them, while the Russians used pencils. A reminder that the best solutions don’t have to be high tech or complicated.

I thought about this on seeing Greening Household Behaviour: The Role of Public Policy, published today by the OECD. Years ago, a Swedish collective housing project was looking for ways to cut water heating bills. Everything failed, until somebody came up with the winner. Every household was given a free plastic basin for the washing up, and they stopped letting the hot water run when doing the dishes.

The OECD book suggests an even more obvious solution: charge people for what they use. Households charged for the volume of water used consume 20% less than those who aren’t charged. The book also says that charging by volume of garbage collected encourages people to generate less waste than charging by weight.

As well as water and waste, the authors surveyed 10,000 people across 10 OECD countries on energy use, transport, and organic food consumption.

And as well as demand-side instruments like charging, they looked at the impact of information and supply-side measures. The results suggest that money doesn’t explain everything, and behaviour can be influenced by a sense of civic duty.

There are wide variations by gender, income, education and other factors though. For instance, Mexicans and Koreans worry more about their environment than people in the Netherlands.  And many Australians and Norwegians say their own actions can make a difference.

In line with other surveys, respondents generally seem reluctant to pay more to use green energies like solar or wind, and household demand for environmental quality is unlikely to be enough to reach ambitious policy objectives.

Encouraging changes in the supply of greener energy, transport and other goods and services is one reason public policy has a role. Many of the proposed solutions would hit poorer people disproportionately, charging being the most obvious example, so any policy initiatives have to consider aspects other than the immediate goal as well.

This book is part of a longer exercise. The 2011 round of the OECD Household Survey will identify changes in people’s attitudes and behaviour towards the environment, and examine ways to promote green growth and the development of a low-carbon economy.

Useful links

OECD work on the environment

OECD work on green growth