Emily Grady of the Garrison Institute’s Climate, Mind and Behavior (CMB) initiative recently presented at the White House Council on Environmental Quality’s GreenGov symposium, which was convened to identify opportunities for greening the Federal government. She focused attention on one of the CMB program’s insights into the importance of people-centered approaches in reducing carbon emissions.
Well-conceived choice architecture can generate low- to no-cost human-engagement strategies with significant impact. In the example Grady gave, CMB Director Karen Ehrhart-Martinez, in the planning of the Behavior, Energy and Climate Change (BECC) Conference in 2009, spearheaded an effort to make use of a cognitive bias called the status quo bias, which suggests that people tend not to change a default option or an established behavior unless the incentive to change is especially compelling. Meat production is responsible for 18% of global greenhouse gas emissions, so, to reduce the conference’s indirect greenhouse gas emissions, the conference registration form was changed. Whereas in prior years it had participants mark a box if they wanted to opt out of the standard meat-based lunch, in 2009 the form specified vegetarian meals as the default. The result? The number of low-carbon, vegetarian lunches went from 20% in 2008 to 80% in 2009. Changing the default option was free and easy for the conference planners and much better for the environment.