Lead Author:
Elizabeth L. Malone, Independent Researcher
Contributing Authors:
Michele Betsill, Colorado State University
Sara Hughes, University of Toronto
Rene Kemp, Maastricht University
Loren Lutzenhiser, Portland State University
Mithra Moezzi, Portland State University
Benjamin L. Preston, RAND Corporation
Tristram O. West, DOE Office of Science
Expert Reviewers:
John Robinson, University of Toronto
Sarah Burch, Waterloo University
Hal Wilhite, University of Oslo
Nicole Woolsey Biggart, University of California, Davis
Benjamin Sovacool, University of Sussex and Aarhaus University
Science Lead:
Paty Romero-Lankao, National Center for Atmospheric Research (currently at National Renewable Energy Laboratory)
Review Editor:
Christine Negra, Versant Vision
Federal Liaison:
Elisabeth Larson, North American Carbon Program; NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, Science Systems and Applications Inc.

Social Science Perspectives on Carbon

Because changes in social, institutional, and technological structures and practices result from people’s decisions to change, the opportunities to reduce carbon emissions are broad-ranging. This section will focus on opportunities for behavioral and institutional changes as described in the research literature.

The IPCC (Blanco et al., 2014) summarized the state of social and behavioral sciences research:

“There are many empirical studies based on experiments showing behavioural interventions to be effective as an instrument in emission reductions, but not much is known about the feasibility of scaling up experiments to the macro economy level. …The net effect of trade, behaviour, and technological change as a determinant of a global increase or decrease of emissions is not established.” (Blanco et al., 2014)

Obvious pathways to explore in efforts to reduce carbon emissions are to change individual and group behaviors—for instance, to dial down thermostats, drive and fly less, buy energy-efficient appliances, eat less meat, and plant trees. Dietz et al. (2009) estimated the behavioral potential of these kinds of changes. They found that “the national reasonably achievable emissions reduction (RAER) can be about 20% in the household sector within 10 years if the most effective nonregulatory interventions are used. This amounts to 123 metric tons of carbon (Mt C) per year, or 7.4% of total national emissions” (Dietz et al., 2009). Actions included home weatherization, upgrades of heating and cooling equipment, more efficient vehicles and home equipment, equipment maintenance and adjustments, and daily use behaviors.

Stern et al. (2016) point out that interventions must “take into account key psychological, social, cultural and organizational factors that influence energy choices, along with factors of an infrastructural, technical and economic nature. Broader engagement of social and behavioral science is needed to identify promising opportunities for reducing fossil fuel consumption” (Stern et al., 2016). These researchers then describe short-term, intermediate, and long-term changes that could reduce fossil fuel consumption (FFC). Table 6.1 is adapted from a portion of their table that listed actions for organizations (i.e., consumers and producers) and large-scale social systems.

Table 6.1 Changes to Reduce Fossil Fuel Consumption at Various Social and Temporal Scalesa,b

Social Scales and Roles Temporal Scales
Short-Term Actions (Moments to Days) Intermediate Actions (Weeks to Decades) Long-Term Actions (Generational, Transformational)
Organizations as energy consumers Induce employees to reduce energy use (e.g., in offices, minimize use of task lights, computers, auxiliary heating and cooling devices).

Reduce motorized business travel (e.g., by using video conferencing).

Assign staff “energy champion” responsibilities.

Manage production systems in response to real-time price signals.
Make reducing fossil fuel consumption (FFC) a strategic part of core business operations.

Replace lighting and HVAC systems, equipment, and motor vehicles with energy-efficient models.

Rent or procure low-FFC buildings when relocating.Adopt photovoltaic systems.Change work styles to accommodate a broader range of thermal conditions (e.g., Japan’s Super Cool Biz program).
Change core business offerings to align with climate challenges (e.g., BP’s short-lived “beyond petroleum” experiment, or Interface Carpet’s goal of carbon neutrality).
Organizations as providers of goods and services Find lower-footprint supply sources.

Inform customers on how to use products and services offered in an energy-efficient way.

Reduce FFC in the production chain.
Make reducing FFC a strategic part of core business offerings.

Support and train staff in systems thinking and sustainability.

Redesign products for lower energy requirements.

Elect to manufacture, market, and service low-FFC products.
Develop lower-carbon, industry-wide standards (e.g., carbon labeling schemes for suppliers).
Large-scale social systems Improve crisis responses to power outages and fuel shortages. Adopt policies to encourage and assist lower-FFC actions in households and organizations.

Create institutions and norms for lower-FFC actions in groups of organizations.
Improve public transport system.

Design communities for easier nonmotorized travel.

Change norms for socially desirable housing, vehicle types, workstyles, and work practices.

a Adapted from Stern et al., 2016.
b Key: FFC, fossil fuel consumption; HVAC, heating, ventilation, and air conditioning

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