Can Polo Shirts Save the World?

James Hacker is Sense and Sustainability’s Outreach Director for the Mid-Atlantic region. He studied Economics and International Affairs at George Washington University, where he was a Presidential Academic Scholar. He lives and works in Washington, DC.

Think about the first thing you do when you wake up in the morning–right after you hit the snooze button. If you’re like most people, odds are you flip a light switch. You probably follow that by opening the fridge, turning on the TV, or taking a shower. All of these are energy-intensive activities, but how much thought do you give them? It may sound simplistic, but at the very deepest level, energy use is driven by human behavior. If we are to limit our energy use and emissions we would do well to start by changing our individual behaviors in a systemic manner.

The vast majority of the discussion in popular media covers energy use and climate change as if it were a technological problem. We could cut our emissions if only we invested in solar and wind energy; building a nationwide high speed rail network would remove thousands of cars from the road, cutting millions of tons of emissions per year. While these are all good points, and obviously a major part of the solution, the focus on technological progress loses sight of the human element at play. At the end of the day, someone has to flip the light switch responsible for burning the fuel and releasing the emissions warming our planet.

This argument suggests that there are significant energy and emissions savings that could be realized without investment in expensive new energy sources, transportation infrastructure, or other cutting-edge technologies. In other words, changing simple human behaviors can achieve comparable energy savings at scale at a lower cost with a shorter lock-in period than major technological or infrastructure investments.

If this sounds too simple, then consider the following. Back in 2006, Japan instituted the “Cool Biz” initiative, which encouraged the typically stodgy Tokyo salarymen to switch from wool suits to khakis and polo shirts during the hot summer months, allowing their offices to turn thermostats up several degrees. Initial estimates were that this abated 5 million metric tons of CO2 – not too shabby for a bunch of polo shirts! These efforts took on new urgency following the Fukushima disaster earlier this summer – with much of its power supply in question, Tokyo needed to cut energy usage by roughly 15% in one summer to avoid blackouts, clearly far too much far too fast to build new solar or wind farms and distribution infrastructure. If taken to the US, these same kinds of simple wardrobe and thermostat changes could allow the Empire State Building to raise its AC by 6 degrees, saving the building roughly $108,000 in cooling costs over the warmest six months of the year. Winter savings are even more significant, at roughly $1.3 million dollars over the coldest six months of the year if people simply dress warmer while in the office.

While all of this sounds great, the trick is convincing people to limit their energy use, potentially in the absence of direct monetary gain. This is just as tough as it sounds, but a number of innovative companies are already finding success at doing just that. For example, the Washington, DC-based OPower works with utilities to help their customers reduce energy use. Their flagship program is the Home Energy Report (HER), which sends a detailed report to customer’s homes detailing their monthly energy use, how they compare with their neighbors & peers, and suggestions for limiting their use in the coming months. These reports have been shown to have fairly significant effects: over the first three years of the program, energy savings were roughly 75 GWh / 100,000 households, at an implementation cost of roughly $0.03 per KWh; the average home has been estimated as having cut energy use by more than 2%. This compares favorably with a number of higher-profile approaches to home energy efficiency, including weatherization (1 GWh / 100k households, at $0.12 / KWh) and installation of CFL lighting (33 GWh / 100k households, $0.02 / KWh).

These savings are even more impressive when you consider the fact that OPower achieved them by simply sending a letter. While there is no guarantee the recipient will read the letter, it is obvious that those that did turned the words into actions. While I could use pages discussing the more scientific aspects of this approach, including how consumers respond to new information and the role of competition between neighbors, the important thing to note here is that by simply sending a letter encouraging consumers to save energy, OPower created energy savings comparable to large scale weatherization or CFL installation, and at a lower overall cost.

Behavior change is obviously not a silver bullet – at some point we need to make the move to a low or zero-carbon economy. In the meantime, changing behavior and creating a culture of conservation can and should play a major role in reducing our overall energy use and  limiting emissions. This approach is not universally lauded: in his excellent appearance on this podcast, Gernot Wagner asks “but will the planet notice?” While he may be right that the planet won’t notice if one, two, or even 100 of us limit our energy use, if all 310 million people in America systematically reconsider their daily energy use, Planet Earth may very well take note.