Small energy-saving measures by consumers really can make a big difference, according to Michigan State University scientists, and peer pressure is the best way to achieve them.
Household energy consumption accounts for 38 percent of carbon emissions in the US and eight percent of world emissions.
Activities such as home weatherization (insulation and so forth), routine vehicle maintenance and opting for the clothes line instead of the dryer could cut total US carbon emissions by five percent over just five years and 7.4 percent in 10 years, MSU Professor Thomas Dietz says.
Astoundingly, that's the equivalent of France's total carbon output, or of total emissions by the US petroleum refining, steel and aluminum industries.
"On the research end of things, we've invested mostly in engineering approaches - building better technology," said Dietz. "But the best technology we can devise doesn't do any good if people don't use it. We can make great progress with the technologies we already have if we pay attention to behavior - how people use the technologies they already have."
Dietz and his collaborators didn't base their estimates on a best-case consumer behavior scenario. Instead, they used the best available information to calculate how many families could reasonably be expected to take such measures if they were provided information, offered financial assistance and could interact with others doing so.
They excluded potential emissions cuts from emerging technologies and from wholesale lifestyle changes, so their estimates are at the low end of potential greenhouse gas reductions, Dietz said.
"I've seen many analyses that make wild assumptions about how hard or how easy it is to get people to change their behavior, without any basis in science," he said. "Our analysis is based on science. We look at what has been feasible in bringing about changes in energy consumption behavior."
The conservation measures the researchers analyzed have the added benefit of a "demonstration effect," Dietz said. "We know from a lot of research that most people, companies and governments are most likely to change behavior when they see their peers change. So someone will weatherize their houses when they see others do it, and governments are most likely to develop policies when they see other governments doing it."
The findings appear in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.