Green Carrots and Sticks: How should we encourage greener lifestyles?

HE new UK coalition government has scrapped plans for a “pay as you throw” bin tax and instead wants to reward families who recycle rubbish. But are such incentives the best way of encouraging greener behaviour?

THE new UK coalition government has scrapped plans for a “pay as you throw” bin tax and instead wants to reward families who recycle rubbish. But are such incentives the best way of encouraging greener behaviour?

As a child growing up in the 1970s I remember returning empty soft drink bottles to our local shop and receiving tuppence for doing so. The financial reward was an incentive to recycle and ensured that empty glass bottles were never thrown away. Britain abandoned such simple bottle deposit scheme a long time ago. Yet in Germany, the Netherlands and some other European countries deposit systems are still used for beer bottles and drink containers. People who recycle bottles are rewarded with a deposit via automated machines at supermarkets.

It seems that rewarding people for greener behaviour via financial incentives is an approach that has been tried and tested but one which needs to be exploited further in the UK. Tax incentives for buying greener cars and installing renewable energy technologies currently exist. However, many of UK government campaigns (e.g. Act on CO2) have encouraged people to voluntarily change their behaviour by raising awareness of their environmental impact. This has been done by assisting individuals to calculate their carbon footprint and show aspects of their lifestyle where reductions can be achieved.

Of course saving energy in the home not only reduces carbon emissions but also reducing energy bills. Indirectly this argument has been used to encourage people to take action to lower their carbon footprint. However, unlike returning recycled bottles, the financial reward is gained over time rather than immediately.

A report by the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) suggests that an approach based on saving public money, and giving the public greater control over energy bills and independence from suppliers would be more effective to engage people in adopting a low carbon lifestyle.

The report suggests that a reduction in carbons emission requires convincing consumers that in adopting lower-carbon lifestyles they can save money and have control in a chaotic world, and they can do the right thing and look good without being an environmentalist.

Households who have installed micro-generation technologies such wind turbines, solar panels and geothermal pumps only receive a return on their investment over years rather than months. The idea of a feed-in tariff (FIT) is designed to encourage the adoption of renewable energy sources.

In April 2010 the UK introduced the FIT programme which pays homeowners and businesses who generate their own electricity through the use of accredited low-carbon technologies. For example, Individuals who generate their own electricity using solar technology can receive 41.3p for every unit of electricity generated. They have the option to use the electricity they produce or feed it back into the national grid.

It is estimated that an average household could generate an income of up to £960 a year through the use of solar panels. However, some critics have argued that FITs are a “scam” because they are an expensive, grossly inefficient way to reduce emissions.

Green Sticks such as the London congestion charge has been used to successfully reduced car use in inner London. The air passenger duty is another example of a green stick which has been used to increase the cost of air travel and discourage passengers to fly.

While rewarding people for recycling can play a key role in reducing amount of household waste going to landfill, charging households for generating waste in the first place is equally as important if we are to tackle our throw-away culture. A report by Green Alliance on measures to discourage environmentally damaging behaviour suggests adding an “inefficiency charge”s on products such as disposable batteries and cameras, garden sprinklers and incandescent light bulbs. Prominent messages about the reason for the charge would be displayed on the products targeted.

A common complaint of many people who wish to lead a greener lifestyle is that many greener options are either more expensive (e.g. public transport) or the infrastructure is not available to support the action (e.g. recycling collections, bicycle lanes, public transport connections). Equally, information on green actions (e.g. installation of renewable technologies) is not always clear or the return on the investment is too long (e.g. investment in solar panels) in the absence of installation grants. Due to many people leading busy lives they do not have the time or inclination to explore the options or benefits of greener living.

If we are to encourage greener lifestyles a combination of green carrots and sticks need to be used. It is clear for the majority of people the biggest incentive to changing their behaviour is the impact it will have on the money in their pocket.

A greener lifestyle has to be an easier, convenient and cheaper option for everyone if we are to encourage more people to think about their impact on the planet.

© Gary Haq 2010