New Analysis: 15% Cut in U.S. Carbon Emissions Achievable Through Simple Inexpensive Personal Actions

Thought and movement leaders gather to develop ways to bring collective behavioral shift to scale

NEW YORK (March 12, 2010) – New analysis released today at a symposium on “Climate, Mind and Behavior” reveals that Americans can reduce U.S. carbon pollution by 15 percent – or one billion tons of global warming pollution  – through collective personal actions that require little to no cost. The analysis released by NRDC and the Garrison Institute’s Climate Mind Behavior (CMB) Project is part of a larger collaboration that seeks to integrate emerging research findings about what drives human behavior into new thinking on climate solutions.

“While our nation develops clean energy strategies to reduce large-scale industrial pollution, this study empowers individual Americans with the knowledge that they can take action today in their daily lives,” said Peter Lehner, Executive Director of the Natural Resources Defense Council. “We all have an opportunity to significantly reduce climate change pollution and cut costs at the same time.”

Focusing exclusively on simple and affordable behavioral changes, the research indicates that Americans can reduce our nation’s annual carbon emissions by one billion metric tons below business-as-usual emission levels by 2020 through small modifications in the sectors of home energy use, transportation, food consumption and waste. One billion metric tons is equivalent to 15% of the United States’ 7 billion tons of annual greenhouse gas emissions and roughly equivalent to the total annual emissions of the United Kingdom and Saudi Arabia combined.

Suggested behavioral changes in the study include: reducing unwanted catalog subscriptions, decreasing vehicle idling, using a programmable thermostat, replacing seven lightbulbs with CFLs, setting computers to hibernate mode, shutting off unused lights, and eating poultry in place of red meat two days per week. All of the recommendations offered in the study are available to be adopted immediately, at little or no cost, and will reduce not only emissions, but home energy, transportation and food costs as well.

The analysis details how each of the common sense actions can result in significant emissions reductions when implemented across the country. For example, if Americans collectively cut personal food waste in by 25%, the nation could eliminate 65 million tons of greenhouse gases, which is approximately the emissions generated from 11 million cars – or roughly all the cars in New York and Missouri combined.

The findings were presented this week by NRDC executive director Peter Lehnerat the Garrison Institute’s Climate Mind and Behavior symposium, which convened leading thinkers and practitioners in the fields of climate change and environmental advocacy, neuro-, behavioral and evolutionary economics, psychology, policy-making, investing and social media.    

“The behavioral approach by no means replaces or competes against other policy, regulatory, market and technology innovations which we need,” said Jonathan Rose, co-founder of the Garrison Institute. “But it’s one key front among others in the quest for climate and energy solutions, and conservation now is key while we move forward on those other fronts. Economists and people who study behavior and decision-making have broken through to new understandings of human behavior and human choices, based on brain physiology and evolution. They can explain for example why we may be slow individually to do simple things well within our capability that would reduce our climate impacts, even though it would be in our interests to do so, or why we are much more likely to make those changes when we know we’re not alone, that others will do it too, and our contributions will aggregate. The opportunity now is to start applying these sorts of insights concertedly to get people to adopt them faster.”

Participants in the symposium were tasked with working together on ways to get individuals to shift behavior on a large scale, and sketched out dozens of new collaborations, from community organizing to building management to communications and social networking – all designed to actualize the massive potential for positive climate impacts through individual choices and behavior shifts.

“Neo-classical economics provides a powerful model for thinking about the world, but new research in behavioral economics highlights the ways in which neo-classical economics only give us a partial view,” said Rebecca Henderson, co-director of the Harvard Business School’s Business and Environmental Initiative and a participant in the symposium. “Behavioral economics may be able to help us make progress on meeting the challenges of climate change; the new research points out how our decisions are driven not only by self-interest and the dynamics of the market but also by our emotions, by our commitments to the communities of which we are part, and by our innate sense of fairness. I think this work has the potential to help us design and implement large-scale behavioral changes, not only on the individual level, but in organizations, policies and markets.”