Carbon Education for Consumers

Strategies for reducing global warming have focused mostly on stopping large oil infrastructure projects such as the Keystone XL pipeline, enacting carbon pricing strategies such as cap and trade, and promoting divestment from carbon extraction businesses.  Relatively little attention has been paid to effectively promoting voluntary carbon use reduction by American consumers, even though changing consumer carbon usage patterns holds the potential for enormous carbon emissions reductions.   On a per capita basis, Americans emit 17 metric tons (37,000 pounds) of CO2 per capita, roughly twice the European Union average and eight times as much as the Brazilian average.

The majority of Americans understand generally that it is important to conserve energy to help the environment, but lack the conceptual foundations to translate that notion into an understanding of personal CO2 emissions.  Consumers should be given the following basic conceptual tools to understand the volume of their carbon emissions: Using 1 gallon of gas releases 20 pounds of CO2 into the air; the 15 gallons in your car’s gas tank will spew 300 pounds of CO2;  1 kilowatt hour of electricity equals 2 pounds of CO2; 1 airplane mile = 1 pound of CO2.  A firm understanding these basic equivalencies, driven home by repetition, will give people a way to measure, understand and evaluate their personal carbon output, and the output of others.   

A carbon emissions reduction campaign should also convey the idea that excessive carbon usage is uncool, unclean, and undesirable.  Right now, there is no social or moral sanction for people who emit vast amounts of carbon or who emit carbon unnecessarily.  Instead, an ultra-high carbon lifestyle is often associated with wealth, power, and prestige.

The image of the high carbon user needs to be inverted from “powerful player” to “selfish, polluting slob that is damaging my kids’ future.”     Advertising and other media need to convince people that emitting lots of carbon by driving gas guzzlers vast distances, leaving three TVs on at a time, and otherwise being a “carbon hog” is uncool and is unnecessarily polluting the air.    Advertisers could model the anti-carbon campaign on the anti-tobacco campaigns.

On the flip side, advertisers could promote the idea that cool people take the bus, ride bikes, drive electric cars, have solar panels on their house, and don’t waste energy.  To analogize to the Apple commercials, big carbon users are PC, small carbon footprint people are Mac.

The stigmatizing of big carbon users shouldn’t let the rest of us off the hook.   Virtually all Americans release vast amounts of carbon, and we shouldn’t be encouraged to congratulate ourselves just because our carbon usage isn’t egregious relative to our neighbors.  Rather, we should be encouraged to see our carbon pollution as an evil, only justified for good cause and in the smallest amounts possible.

The scale of the publicity campaign will of course depend on the budgets behind it.   A well-financed federally-sponsored campaign modeled on the anti-drug and anti-tobacco campaigns featuring heavy television advertising would obviously have the most immediate impact.   Privately funded efforts in the media and on billboards could also be effective.  Utility bills should state the pro rata CO2 emitted to provide the electricity or gas used by the customer.   At the grass-roots level, social media and street campaigns such as holding placards at gas-stations could also be effective.  A mix of numerous levels and forms of publicity would have the most penetration and be most effective.

A forceful public education campaign concerning carbon should be relatively non-controversial.  Environmentalists should embrace it, because if properly executed, it could lead to very significant carbon emissions reductions over time, and an overall demand for policies promoting lower carbon usage.  Conservatives should not be vehemently opposed to it, because it is non-coercive, does not involve taxation, and relies on private, voluntary action to achieve its goals.

-Matthew Metz