In 2009 I was asked to travel to Kosovo to give a talk at a UN conference on climate change – my participation was no doubt due to some wrangling on the part of some of my former students at the American University in Kosovo since I’m not a climate scientist. I’ve got to admit that I was intimidated – I’ve given talks at conferences of radiation safety specialists, geologists, and even astronomers, but they were all scientific papers on topics I understood well, and they were given to audiences that I had some sort of academic connection to. This conference was different in that climate change is outside my academic expertise, and the intricacies of the Kyoto Protocols are even further from my comfort zone. So I spent a lot of time trying to figure out what in the world I could say that would be worth the expense of flying me to Kosovo, not to mention what would be worth the time of those in the audience. What occurred to me was that it might be interesting to try to answer the question “What can I tell someone in Pristina that would convince them to take actions that will help the Dutch a century from now?” Or, put another way – why should the residents of the poorest nation in Europe spend time or money today that might help to address a problem that won’t affect them and that probably won’t have much of an impact for decades or longer?
What occurred to me was that maybe we can think of carbon dioxide emissions (or, rather, the actions that lead to them) as a bad behavior – along the lines of smoking, drug use, drinking, overeating, and so forth. Let’s face it – we choose to drive gas-guzzling cars (or not), we choose to crank up the heat or air conditioning (or not), we choose to elect officials who believe in taking actions to curb greenhouse gas emissions (or not), and so forth. To some extent, the carbon dioxide and methane entering the atmosphere are a result of billions of individual decisions made on a daily basis.
So if we think of greenhouse gas emissions as a bad behavior then we have to ask if governmental policies can change these behaviors. And I’ve got to say that the track record is somewhat mixed. Governments can set policies to help address society’s behaviors, but only if the population supports these policies. Consider, for example, the wild success of the government’s Prohibition policies in the early part of the last century. The recent New York City restrictions on large sodas probably won’t have much of an impact on obesity or diabetes, and the War on Drugs hasn’t done much to curb drug use in the US. There are successes of course – consider the reductions in smoking over the last few decades – but the bottom line is that unless the citizens buy into a policy it probably won’t work. So what can we do to get the Kosovars to buy into reducing greenhouse gas emissions?
One of the first things I noticed when I landed in Pristina the first time was the torrents of smoke belching out of the KEK lignite-burning power plant. Replacing the plant would be a good start, but anything to reduce electrical demand would be a good start. So maybe a place to start would be finding a way to reduce electrical consumption – and maybe starting with lighting. The problem is that mandating that all Kosovars replace their incandescent lights with compact fluorescent or LED bulbs probably wouldn’t work because these bulbs aren’t cheap – we still have the question of how we get poor people to voluntarily take (and support) actions that won’t directly help them. But maybe one way to do it is to turn this into something that will help them, and to point this out.
So what would happen, I asked my audience, if KEK were to pay for the energy-efficient lights and deliver them to their customers? The bulbs would use less electricity, so KEK’s customers would see lower electrical bills while simultaneously reducing their greenhouse gas emissions. And if KEK were to pay the up-front costs (perhaps borrowing money to do so) then the consumers wouldn’t be out any money at all – they’d just see a lower electrical bill. But I thought it was important to stress that the bulbs were not a gift, because people don’t always value something that’s just given to them. And here it gets a little complex, but not too bad….
Say KEK spends €100 to replace all the light bulbs in my home with compact fluorescents – KEK is a business and they can’t just donate this much money to every home in their service area. So the money KEK spends on light bulbs could be repaid by KEK’s taking some of the money from energy savings from each customer each month – if my electric bill drops by €20 a month because of the new lights then I’d get €15 and KEK would get the other €5 until the lights have been paid for. Taking this a little further, KEK could also sell carbon credits to reflect its reduced emissions, and could split that cost with its customers as well. The customer saves money every month, KEK gets repaid, and carbon dioxide emissions are reduced – everyone wins. And maybe if the initial program is a success KEK could expand it to include kitchen appliances, air conditioners, and furnaces – within a decade or so Kosovo could reduce its carbon emissions by a third, and KEK might be able to replace its lignite-burning power plants with something cleaner.
The other part of this would be to make sure the customer can see – every month – that what they’ve done is benefiting them. A great way to do this would be to make it explicit by including it in every electric bill – to show the energy usage and cost, to include a line showing how much money was saved by changing light bulbs, and to show how much money was saved by selling carbon credits (less the loan repayment to KEK). If my electric bill has a line telling me each month that I’ve saved €15 then I’m thinking that I’ve saved enough to buy a small gift for my wife or to take my kids out to lunch. Closing the loop like that – showing me that letting KEK replace my light bulbs with more energy-efficient models puts money in my pocket – helps to reinforce my good behavior and encourages me to keep up the good work.
This approach can be expanded a bit further, should the government choose to do so. They can, for example, use similar tactics to encourage upgrading windows, insulation, and other upgrades to reduce wasting energy. Or they can help contractors (and customers) to upgrade construction of new buildings to meet higher conservation standards – the cost of some of these measures could be defrayed by charging a small tax on energy bills of those buying the upgraded properties.
So one way of implementing this on a national scale might be something like this:
- Government announces a policy on energy efficiency
- Government loans money to KEK to finance implementing this policy (e.g. buying energy-efficient items (e.g. lights, appliances, windows, etc.) for their customers
- KEK purchases and installs new these items for its customers
- Customers see lower energy bills and repay KEK
- Greenhouse gas emissions go down in Kosovo
I’ve got to admit that I tend to be a bit of an idealist – I’d like to think that people will do the “right thing” simply because it’s the right thing to do. But I also know that’s not the way the world works – idealism is nice, but it’s more effective to be rewarded for your actions. So why not be rewarded for doing the right thing – especially in a poor nation that has little immediate stake in global warming? And what better way to get citizens’ support for a government policy than by showing them real benefits every month?