An interesting article in Scientific American (here) tells about ongoing research at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory to assess how social norms relating to energy consumption might successfully be altered to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions. Starting with past success stories of positive norm changes, the researchers hope to identify how hurdles might be avoided and incentives created by policies to alter energy use by individuals. Those past success stories include massive reductions in tobacco use (in 1965, 44% percent of Californians smoked; today only 9.3% smoke) and increased use of seat belts by drivers (see here).
What lessons might those success stories provide for changing norms with regard to energy use? We probably should not be too optimistic. Smoking norms were altered by a massive government information campaign, but that campaigned was facilitated by the large, internal costs of smoking. The increased use of seat belts was spurred, in significant part, by laws prohibiting driving without wearing them. Compliance with those laws was surely facilitated, however, by the internal costs of driving without them. In other words, individual smokers and drivers had substantial personal incentive to stop smoking and to wear seat belts. The same cannot really be said with respect to individual energy consumption. While energy prices obviously create some incentive to conserve, individuals typically do not get sick or die from leaving the lights on. This is not to say the research efforts are necessarily a waste of time or money. It just means that altering social norms of energy consumption is likely to be more difficult and complicated than getting people to stop smoking or to buckle up in their cars.
How important is increasing energy efficiency to mitigating greenhouse gas emissions and stabilizing the global climate? The answer to that question is somewhat complicated. Simon Dietz of Michigan State University is quoted in the Scientific American story as claiming that, on conservative estimates, decreased energy consumption by American households could result in a 7 percent reduction in total US greenhouse gas emissions, which translates to 1.5 percent of total global emissions. However, Bjorn Lomborg, citing studies of the so-called "rebound effect," notes (here) that energy efficiency improvements do not necessarily lead to nominal reductions in energy use. The economic logic is simple: as energy efficiency increases, the price of energy drops, leading (all else being equal) to increased energy demand. Thus, the key for climate policy is not just to increase the efficiency of energy production or supply, but to actually reduce total energy consumption.