Hit by energy efficiency backfire?

To reduce public energy consumption you first need to understand consumer behaviour. And the government and industry has much to learn.

In Australia, government expenditure has traditionally emphasised technological solutions or incentives to foster uptake of innovative practices to tackle climate change.

Solar technologies, carbon sequestration, insulation schemes and solar rebates are all examples of such approaches, and generally rely on people going about their lives in much the same way, only with 'carbon reduction engineering' happening around them.

An alternative to these approaches are programs that focus purely on savings and environmental benefits generated by people changing their behaviour rather than technology. There are several behaviour change campaigns run by all levels of government and the energy sector itself. These programs often rely on giving information such as the all-too-common 'top tips for saving energy' or removing barriers to 'better' behaviour. 

These methods can be effective in some instances where motivation to adopt or change behaviour is strong and only an information or skill gap is present. However, perhaps because of limited motivation or a failure by program designers to truly understand the drivers of behaviour, evidence against the effectiveness of these campaigns is mounting.

In light of some unconvincing results, behavioural sciences are increasingly being used to better inform interventions to influence behaviour, moving beyond traditional thinking that information alone and making behaviours easier to perform are sufficient to motivate change. For example, since the research of Wes Schultz from California State University and others in 2007 demonstrating that presenting the energy usage of neighbours was a powerful motivator for behaviour change, the practice has increased rapidly in popularity.   

One company in the US, Opower, delivers over three million energy reports to households, telling them how much energy they used, how much energy their neighbours used as well as how much energy 'efficient' neighbours used.

Another area where behavioural sciences are shedding new light on behaviour change programs is the breaking of old habits and the formation of new desirable ones. Evidence is emerging that people’s habits are particularly vulnerable when they are in a life stage change (e.g. moving house, changing jobs or retiring). Those wishing to maximise the influence of a campaign targeting habitual behaviours should therefore attempt to coincide the timing of campaign material delivery with times of personal change.

However, even if successful, the true impact of these behaviour change interventions (as well as the technological solutions articulated earlier) is limited by a great unknown in behaviour change: how does performing one behaviour influence the performance of other behaviours? Researchers in this area point to four possible outcomes:

1. Positive spillover: This is where the act of undertaking one pro-environmental behaviour increases the likelihood of performing other pro-environmental behaviours.

2. Negative spillover: This is where the act of undertaking one pro-environmental behaviour decreases the likelihood of performing another pro-environmental behaviour – the idea of   “resting on one’s laurels”.

3. Direct rebound: This is where the act of undertaking one pro-environmental behaviour leads to other related, but in environmental terms contradictory, behaviours. Direct rebound is more likely to occur for the technological-based approaches outlined at the beginning of this article. For example, the purchase of an efficient appliance may result in the purchaser using it more.  Direct rebound is conceptualised as 'moral licensing', where an individual feels that the act of undertaking an initial 'good' behaviour gives them the right to perform subsequent 'bad' behaviour.

4. Indirect rebound: This is where the act of undertaking one pro-environmental behaviour leads to other unrelated, but in environmental terms contradictory, behaviours. For example, the money saved on energy bills by installing home insulation may be spent on other, perhaps more carbon-intensive goods and services, resulting in a net negative effect.

The truth is, researchers, companies, governments and policymakers usually don’t know what happens beyond the immediate success or failure of individual behaviour change campaigns.  Without factoring the range of responses after any immediate success or failure, the overall carbon balance sheet will not add up, most markedly where one of the two rebound outcomes result.

Indeed, it is distinctly possible that a program that has resulted in positive behaviour change may, after factoring in direct and indirect rebound effects, have led to greater overall energy use than business-as-usual. Depending on the objectives of the program in the first place, the overall program may actually have led to an increase in energy use – a situation known as 'backfire'.

While research into rebound is limited, current evidence suggests that its effect may be significant.  In a review of rebound effects, Steve Sorrell from the UK Energy Research Centre suggested that a 30 per cent discount should be applied to the expected savings from thermal comfort efficiency measures due to direct rebound effects. Indirect effects will add more to this.

Another recent study found 34 per cent indirect rebound effects for energy conservation behaviours (where direct rebound effects don’t apply) but warned that backfire (i.e. over 100 per cent) could occur if the savings resulting from the behaviour change were spent on energy-intensive goods and services.

There is great difficulty in determining the level of positive and negative spillover, and in indirect and direct rebound, but it is vital that methods are developed to do so. With the carbon tax and rising energy bills, there is an opportunity to genuinely reduce energy consumption, as motivation for energy efficient behaviours is likely to rise as a means of maintaining energy bills as a proportion of household and business budgets. 

But this relies on a better understanding of the real impact of behaviour change programs.

Liam Smith is PhD Director, BehaviourWorks Australia, Monash Sustainability Institute, Monash University. Jim Curtis is PhD, Postdoctoral Research Fellow, BehaviourWorks Australia, Monash Sustainability Institute, Monash University.