“Individuals will care about many things that are part of the ‘ethical’ agenda – Third World debt, child labour, pollution, animal welfare, and so on – but must also trade these off against more mundane issues that are generally more salient and immediate – children’s schooling, healthcare, mortgages, interest rates, and so on. The question then becomes one of asking: ‘How important is the ethical issue when compared to other basic issues?’ … the ethical consumer is a myth, an idealised fiction supported by neither theory nor fact.” – Timothy Devinney, The myth of the ethical consumer.

What follows is an argument to support this proposition:

Only by offering financial incentives to citizens, industry, and governments and their agencies will we reduce Earth’s pollution by 2025.

The proposition is offered because I’m concerned by accepted science that says if Earth’s pollution is not significantly reduced before 2030, its weather will disintegrate, our cultures will fail, and we humans may mostly disappear.

No human has saved a planet before. We’re having to guess which solutions may get that job done and get it done in less than two decades. What’s here is a guess, too. It suggests that well-designed incentives may talk to that part of humans – our minds and emotions – that dominate our decisions, which cause (or do not cause) us to pollute Earth.

At the core of the argument is this assertion: what we say and what we do about pollution are very different. The science and data to support this assertion are, I think, persuasive.

Take how we buy and sell “green” property.

A property developer found it could not sell green homes at a premium. Buyers would not pay more for houses said to be more efficient with water and energy systems the developer was obliged to install under planning rules.

Analysis showed two factors swayed buyers.

First, they compared the land, lot layout and space with nearby homes for sale with no green features. Second, they looked at the green homes the same way they looked at computers, TVs and other stuff. They decided the green homes would be obsolete in 10 years, the average time a house is owned. The homes would need updating to be sold. They decided the savings on energy and water bills would be offset by the cost to upgrade to sell.

The developer found a sales solution in two parts. First, ownership of the energy and water saving technology was removed from the houses and made part of the common property of the estate. The technology included cogeneration of power and heat, solar panels. Individual house owners, however, kept the financial savings won by the technology. Second, the developer emphasised house sales turnover, not price.

This worked.

By selling the green homes this way buyers were able to compare the green and brown houses using the same criteria. Thus, the more efficient green houses sold a third more quickly than the brown houses and paid back more money than the additional cost of the green infrastructure.

Look next at household energy and water using appliances, in particular those energy guzzlers, airconditioners.

A 2014 review of the use by consumers of energy labels in Australia found that “while 55 per cent of consumers say that they would use a website to access more information about the energy use of an appliance, only 17 per cent of airconditioner purchasers and seven per cent purchasers of all other appliances actually used a website as a resource to select their recently purchased appliance. In light of this, it is recommended that the reasons for the low use of the E3 website and possible improvements to increase and improve its use are further investigated.”

Me? I’m conflicted, too. I love my winter log fires, a highly polluting joy, burning in the same house I’ve made (so it’s caused no sewage or stormwater or air pollution for 21 years, with the exception of less than about 50 tonnes of gas pollution from cooking; I plead for mercy – I do mostly cook over those fires).

If we look at the science scrutinising reasons for the failure over the last few hundred years of rules, policies, documentaries, causes, politics, governments, citizens and business to cut pollution it would be hard to disagree with this assessment from Devinney again:

“We can accept human intent and behaviour for what it is but work to change it, or we can idealise intention and behaviour and be bitterly disappointed when we and our peers do not live up to the espoused standards.”

Now, to incentives. The developer in the green property selling example above succeeded when it spoke to the real and visceral motivating incentives of the buyers – money – and resale value.

By incentives I mean here to focus on any means by which pollution will be reduced in the marketing, sales and use of things. That’s advertising, rules or laws or guidelines, policies, government and private sector behaviour.

Here’s a question intended to show the new world we might quickly give ourselves if we put incentives to cut pollution on the table for government and their agencies, the private sector and citizens. It considers only the example of local councils:

If local governments were to compete with each other for development in their areas so as to achieve higher energy and water standards than in other areas, why and how would they do that, and would the economic and social gains justify some form of contestability within the local government sector?

Do you see?

With local councils forced to compete for lower polluting development and infrastructure, then the elected and un-elected folk in them would have the incentive to get lower pollution embedded in their activities.

Instead of the caterwauling of citizens, developers, the infrastructure and design industry about the higher cost of cleaner new projects and existing buildings and land, and the dread of dealing with local councils, the clean options would take priority.

Local councils, in my view, are the single greatest cause of Earth’s pollution; every building, road, rule, polluting activity is carefully given birth to by metres-high rules created and painstakingly administered by local councils.

Okay, competition between councils is never going to happen, and will take more than 20 years, if ever, you say.

Consider this: what are the incentives that can viscerally motivate local councils no matter their composition or policies or wealth?

Like the rest of us, there are humans in there.

It’s money.

How councils love sending us rates bills, charging fees, garnering levies, contributions, building up their superannuation. Fine. Let’s work with that.

So, make a rule that councils may increase their income if they reduce Earth’s pollution in their area.

Otherwise, forget it. We accept business as usual, more pollution, and mayhem this side of 2030.

There are many examples of good and bad rules, and good and bad incentives. “Good” in the sense they worked, “bad” in the sense they didn’t. These are briefly explored here so the concluding rules and solutions that are offered may be explained.

A good rule: In 2007 Australia followed other countries and banned incandescent light bulbs. According to Energy Rating, “It is estimated that the phase out of incandescent light bulbs, which commenced in 2009 in Australia (along with state based energy efficiency obligations schemes), is saving around 2.4 terawatt-hours of electricity each year (equivalent to the total annual electricity consumption of 400,000 homes). The average household is estimated to be saving $70 per annum, with cumulative national savings of an estimated $5.5 billion.”

A bad incentive: The year before the ban on incandescent bulbs, in 2006, NSW abandoned a scheme to give – yes “give” – its citizens 10 million light energy saving light bulbs. The reason? Less than half the bulbs were ever used. But, yes, the politicians bathed in green adoration.

Another good rule: minimum standards that directly or indirectly encourage development above the standards.

The federal government’s minimum efficiency standards for commercial and household white goods, which have raised the efficiency of the goods because the manufacturers have been prompted to make their products more efficient in that market – even though consumers may not prioritise buying the most efficient product.

A bad rule: Minimum standards that directly or indirectly stop or retard development above minimum standards.

These include government or private sector green checklists, for example, in Australia these include BASIX (NSW) and NatHERS (federal government).

Due to significant inadequacies in the design of BASIX, my low polluting house fails BASIX – its standards are too high for the checklist. A special exemption must be obtained for the house, and others like it that have been built above the minimum standards, to obtain a BASIX certificate. This option is largely unknown to, and rarely

used by, BASIX consultants and designers during the design and approval process, and my experience is that consultants typically give erroneous advice about building above BASIX standards, and say words about low polluting options to the effect, “BASIX doesn’t allow x, y, z.”

One thing about the checklists breaks my heart. It ignores the planet-wounding havoc they’ve caused to Sumatra, Borneo, West Papua and other countries without effective protection of rainforests compared to Australian timber; that’s where the imported timber goes in the thousands of new Australian buildings. The checklists have abandoned the market for recycled and Australian timber to replace that imported timber.

We’ve come to peak smug in the wannabe green world, that disease discovered in the South Park comedy episode in which “the purchasing of ‘Pious’ automobiles caused an outbreak of ‘smug’ that nearly destroyed South Park”.

Is there anyone who believes rules, fashion or dramatic stagey calls of “who will stand with me?” reduce pollution?

The science and their actions shows they don’t.

What then are the incentives that may cut Earth’s pollution by 2030?

  • Create competition between banks, government agencies, states and local councils to grow local economies
  • A tax benefit, grant or other benefit for any reduction of at least 10 per cent on a quarterly period in:
    • water or electricity or gas bills; kilometres travelled by car and truck
    • cost of financial transactions charged by banks, the state or local council and government agencies
    • water reaching waterways and oceans from roads, roofs, parks
    • cost and time to achieve new and existing buildings that together demonstrate a 30 per cent reduction in energy and water bill
    • food burnt to make energy – an example of best practice, where 80 per cent of food waste is composted and sold to farmers to enrich their soil, is San Francisco

Now, back to my fire.

Bathurst Burr is an occasional column named after this propensity of this noxious weed to be “a burr under the saddle of government, red tape and sustainability police”.

Michael Mobbs designed, built and lives in Sydney’s Sustainable House. His books, Sustainable House and Sustainable Food are best sellers, and he leads courses on renewable energy and energy savings for households. See  www.sustainablehouse.com.au

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  1. ..one unfortunate aspect of Bathurst Burr is it’s propensity to deflate bicycle tyres (and any other pneumatic tyres). they are the bane of life in Bathurst – except for bicycle repair shops who make a living out of burr proofing.

    thank you for this article. very illuminating.