I Recycle, Compost, and Drive Electric. Who Cares About Policy?

By Prabarna Ganguly

By engaging in environmentally friendly household behaviors such as recycling, driving electric, and purchasing energy-efficient gadgets, you are playing a pivotal role in reducing carbon emissions. Your green actions will go a long way in reflecting the changing consumption patterns and effects at an individual level. But is reducing our energy consumption the only way for us to mitigate climate change? No! There is another channel the general public can use, which is supporting renewable energy policies.

This seems reasonable. So what is the issue?

Research indicates that people who employ pro-environmental actions are less likely to involve themselves in policy support. This behavior seems to emerge from a "perception of sufficient progress". According to a new study published in Nature Climate Change, it appears that individuals do not consider household behavior and climate change policies to be complementary, i.e. that both are required for substantial difference to be made in climate conditions. Rather, they view the two means to be substitutable.

If you do one, then you do not have to do the other.

Why would this be the case?

The article argues that there are two possible explanations.

  1. If you go green, then you have a belief that environmental goods provided should be eco-friendly. Concurrently, you also believe that your individual action will have positive impact on the rest of society, therefore decreasing your perceived importance of government action.
  2. If you go green, then you are inclined to believe that you are having an impact on how much eco-friendly environmental goods are provided. E.g., If you use solar energy and drive an eco-friendly car, then you might believe that your consumer demand will increase solar energy and electric car production and sales. Therefore you might be inclined to worry less about environmental sustainability, which is often mediated by voting.

Case Study - Summer of 'setsuden'

In 2011, following the shutdown of the Fukushima nuclear plant, in order to prevent blackouts, the Japanese government began a national movement ('Setsuden') to save electricity by encouraging households to reduce their energy consumption (e.g. use fans instead of air-conditioning, turn lights off during daytime). The authors used this incident as the backdrop for their study.  

The study assessed the veracity of these possible explanations by analyzing how 14,000 Japanese participants responded to their survey experiments.   (Source:    https://japantoday.com/category/features/lifestyle/summer-of-setsuden )

The study assessed the veracity of these possible explanations by analyzing how 14,000 Japanese participants responded to their survey experiments. (Source: https://japantoday.com/category/features/lifestyle/summer-of-setsuden)

They randomly assigned participants to two major groups:

  1. Control: those who were only asked to check from a list of energy-saving actions they had performed during the campaign, and
  2. Treatment: those who were asked to read a paragraph on the Setsuden campaign before checking the list. The two groups were then asked to indicate their level of support for an increase in carbon tax to help mitigate climate change and finance renewable energy.

The authors found that treatment participants were 13% more unlikely to support the tax increase.

Interestingly, in April 2015, Ontario announced that it would join the Cap and Trade system, utilizing some form of carbon pricing to mitigate greenhouse gas pollution. More than 75% of Canadians will live with some form of carbon taxation. (Source: https://www.ontario.ca/page/climate-change-strategy)

The authors then tested whether different magnitudes of participants’ belief (based on the number of items checked from the list of energy-saving actions) in perceived individual progress in environmentally friendly behaviors proportionately impacted their likeliness to support governmental regulations. Results indicated that Japanese participants with a greater sense of eco-friendly habits are indeed more likely to find less value in governmental actions and policies.

Why does this affect us?

The issue of not finding value in governmental climate change policies, simply because we are well-meaning, recycling, eco-friendly citizens is an insidious one. Pro-environmental behavior is usually viewed as moral, so perhaps by boosting one’s concept of morality, we may subsequently be licensing selfish policy.  “I am a good citizen of the world, I recycle, I compost, I drive electric, so why should I have to pay despite my good deeds?” This kind of questioning is called moral licensing.

It is a social phenomenon where people are more willing to express selfish choices when their past behavior has established their credentials as altruistic people.

The Road Ahead

Ontario’s 2013 greenhouse gas emissions by sector (Source: National Inventory report 2013, Ontario’s Long-Term Energy Plan and Greenhouse Gas Emission Reporting regulation (O. Reg 452.09))


Greenhouse gas emissions from the residential sector makes up less than 7% of all emissions across major sectors in Ontario. Transportation and industry carry the bulk of this issue, and reducing these levels require government evaluation, recognition, and implementation of alternative technologies and mode choices. Sustaining and holding citizens accountable to their household behavior, and continuing to maintain rigorous standards for businesses and individuals to uphold is a key role that the government plays to ensure that low-carbon targets are met by the province. It is therefore critical for Ontarians to support and deploy their votes to encourage environmental-friendly policies, and pay a price to help reduce Ontario’s carbon footprint on Earth.