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Over a wide range of environmental activities people seem very committed to doing the right thing — until they’re asked to pay for it. The OECD’s behaviour-modifiers have their work cut out.

It’s always a little chilling to read about big government revving up to engage in behaviour modification, especially when the behaviour to be modified is your own. At least the OECD, which represents the 34 richest big governments in the world, does its calculations about which particular “instruments” to use on us out in the open. The latest example is its new report Greening Household Behaviour: The Role of Public Policy.

Based on an in-depth survey of 10,000 OECD citizens from 10 countries, including Canada, the report looks at what factors most influence people’s decisions about how much they want to consume of a particular good or engage in a particular activity. In this case, the goods and activities are all environmentally oriented: What works in getting people to consume less water and energy, drive less, recycle more and eat more organic food?

The prior question, of course, is why you would want to do all that. But the OECD more or less takes it for granted that the markets for these various activities have failed, so that people are over-consuming water, energy and cars and not recycling enough or eating enough organic food. That’s all highly debatable, of course, but leaving it aside for a moment, the survey work contains some interesting nuggets.

  • Even after controlling for income, car ownership is correlated with drinking bottled water, which means double-damnation in Green eyes, but is not surprising when you consider how hard to lug around water is.
  • People who do their washing at night when electricity rates are lower may actually end up using more energy since they typically don’t wait until they have a full load.
  • Only about 35% of Swedes are metred for their water use, which is surprising, given that country’s do-good reputation. Only 10% have their paper recycled via a door-to-door pick-up (vs. 65% here). Swedes drink about seven times more bottled water as a share of their total water consumption than we do. And they’re significantly less likely to turn down the heat to save energy. The report doesn’t say whether they also sit around in their undershirts smoking cigars and drinking beer, but you’d think the Swedes would be more environmentally correct. Our policy elites have always had Swedish-envy. Maybe we should be learning something from Sweden.
  • It seems the whole world, or at least the whole rich world, has bought into the efficient light bulb mania. More than 70% of people in every country surveyed except South Korea report having installed them — almost 90% of Italians have — and the OECD notes approvingly that we Canadians are going to ban incandescent bulbs, having decided that reading by the warm glow of an Edison bulb is a crime against humanity. But almost nobody in the 10 countries has opted to buy renewable energy. The number is well below 10% everywhere except Norway, where it verges on 20%.
  • Were you aware that more than 10% of Canadians, tied with Mexico and South Korea for the highest number in all countries, have received government assistance in purchasing a new dual-flush or water-saving toilet? Who knew we had a national flush policy? Learning we do is actually a little annoying. When in a recent renovation our family installed a water-saving toilet, we did it on our own dime out of what turned out to be a misguided desire to do the right thing. Let the OECD be warned: It’s a mistake we will not repeat. The thing blocks all the time. Unless we get generous subsidies to change our diets — which I suppose is a policy gleam in some bureaucrat’s eye — the next toilet we purchase will be a one-flush tsunami model.

The really interesting thing about the OECD report, however, is that though people say they are concerned about various environmental issues, their behaviour betrays them. Asked how much they would be willing to spend to improve water quality, their average answer is just 7.5% of the median OECD water bill — which is not very much (though, not surprisingly, it’s more in Mexico). Moreover, people’s willingness to spend is related to their trust in government. If they don’t trust government, and many don’t, they don’t care to spend.

The same is true for renewable energy. Almost half of the 10,000 people the OECD talked to were not willing to pay anything at all — repeat: nothing at all — to use only green energy, while the average extra amount the rest would be willing to pay was just 5%. Roughly 2% of respondents, it’s true, would happily accept a 30% or higher premium for green energy. Judging by the policies we’re getting, most of them must work for the government.

The same roughly 2% of respondents said they would pay as much as a 50% premium for organic food. The obvious policy response is “Let them, if they want to, but leave the rest of us out of it.” And the rest of us are numerous: Almost a third of respondents said they wouldn’t pay anything extra at all for organic food, while another third said they’d only pay a 1% to 5% premium.

Over a wide range of environmental activities people seem very committed to doing the right thing — until they’re asked to pay for it. The OECD’s behaviour-modifiers have their work cut out.

Financial Post, 8 March 2011