Recently, someone mentioned to me that they feel guilty about using twist-ties on plastic bags, because of the potential environmental consequences of doing so. To me, this seems like an extreme demonstration of how people can sometimes fail to grasp the relative scale of environmental impacts – they walk to work for a few days, rather than driving, and think that constitutes a substantial contribution to fighting climate change. At the same time, it is quite likely that they live in a home that is so poorly insulated that improvements would pay for themselves in a few years.
A recent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences provides some quantitative data showing that people underestimate their own energy consumption and highlight relatively insignificant activities when asked how they can improve:
When asked to rank the single most effective way to save energy, participants typically endorsed activities with small savings, such as turning off lights, while ignoring what they could economise on larger devices. This suggests that people misallocate their efforts, fretting over an unattended lamp (at 100 watts) while neglecting the energy they could save by nudging their washer settings from “hot” to “warm” (4,000 watt-hours for each load of laundry).
While it can be argued that more education is the solution, I think it is probably more effective to use approaches that do not depend on voluntary change at the user level. One option is higher energy prices, to encourage conservation. That is especially justified at times of peak demand, when inefficient power plants get turned on.
Another option is to set higher standards for buildings and appliances. It may be best to simply ban especially inefficient options. Another tatic is to levy a fee on inefficient appliances – such as dishwashers, driers, and washing machines – and use the revenues to subsidize more efficient models. That would reduce the price differential between relatively good and relatively poor choices.