Eric Knight

25 February 2013 – One of the most important challenges in tackling climate change is to change human behaviour. It’s also the most effective, says Eric Knight, author of a recent book, Reframe, How to solve the world’s trickiest problems. Next Wednesday, 6 March, he will address the Green Cities 2013 conference in Sydney on findings from his work. Following is a sample of his views.

The recent string of record hot temperatures has left its mark on our natural landscape, burning through thousands of acres of bush, hundreds of homes, killing livestock and, tragically, one human life. But the fires aren’t the only way the heat has had an environmental impact. The nation’s airconditioning systems also have been in overdrive.

Australia has a mixed relationship when it comes to thinking about energy consumption and energy efficiency. The pink batts fiasco turned many people off and the economic benefit from installing energy efficiency technologies can be hard sell. It’s about spending money now to save money in the future. It’s a complicated message.

Having said that, it’s important we get it right. In 2012, about 20 per cent of Australia’s total energy use came from commercial and residential use.

That includes electricity we consumed in our homes and offices – from turning on the lights, running digital devices, switching on the air conditioning in summer and heating in winter.

That has an environmental impact – as well as an economic one. When we talk about the pain of rising electricity prices, the costs to commercial and residential property are the most direct hit.

The most common response for people looking to go green is to try renewable energy. There has been strong uptake of solar panel and solar hot water systems in recent years, closely aligned with a generous government subsidy.

That’s only part of the solution. Energy efficiency is a bigger opportunity because baseline consumption is on the rise. That’s as much to do with hot weather as it is with living in a digital world. Data storage and charging connected devices takes a lot of puff.

When it comes to building design, Australia does a pretty good job. In the 2012 Global Real Estate Sustainability Benchmark Report, Australian real estate companies ranked highly on the uptake of Green Star ratings. Green Star ratings are awarded to buildings which meet various criteria including energy and water consumption, land use, management and emissions.

But building the technologies is the easy bit.

Harder is how to change human behaviour so these technologies

are used in the right way.

In a recent paper published by Nils Kok and his colleagues from the University of California, Berkeley, Kok showed that human behaviour did more to drive environmental outcomes than techno-wizardry inside green buildings. He studied 5000 commercial buildings in California, with a detailed database covering building vintage, property contract incentives and energy consumption.

Contrary to what you might assume, newer buildings did not necessarily consume less electricity. Recent changes to regulation and building codes made some difference, but typically covered only a fraction of overall energy consumption.

Interestingly, Dr Kok found that buildings performed better when they had active managers controlling the temperature controls and working the technology inside the building. For example, they knew the perfect temperature to set inside the shopping centre, rather than leaving it to individual shop owners to dial up and down. They knew how to manage the lighting and trim other costs.

Red means hot energy use

Dr Kok’s message is welcome news for the country’s property managers. But what about people who want to self-manage their own buildings?

Several years ago, Southern California Edison distributed a device to customers to tackle this problem. Rather than feeding customers text messages and email updates, it communicated in a more visual manner.

It glowed red when electricity demand peaked and green when there was a trough. With such a device in the kitchen, a customer could change their behaviour in real time – making decisions about when to run the laundry with concrete information about the state of the electricity grid.

The solution was a striking success and reduced

peak consumption by 40 per cent.

The company’s insight was to correctly characterise the customer’s dilemma. They cared about the environment; they just lacked the tools and feedback loops to make meaningful decisions. Electricity was invisible so something was needed to make the answers tangible.

Tackling eco challenges requires engineering ingenuity.

But it also needs designers who can bring technology to life and engage consumers in a meaningful way.

Too often we are cynical about people’s consumerism and motivations when these are the levers we have to master. This is something the Clean Energy Finance Corporation must bear in mind as it prepares to invest $10 billion in home-grown clean-tech solutions.

Tax dollars may help a company break even in the short term. But long term solutions require for-profit companies to be consumer-oriented in approach and serious about behavioural change, usability and design.

Eric Knight is author of Reframe, How to solve the world’s trickiest problems. He is a Rhodes scholar who has been an economics consultant for the Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development and the United Nations. His presentation for Green Cities 2013 will be in Sydney on Wednesday 6 March.  Details www.greencities.org.au