Paying Consumers To Help The Environment?
When it comes to fighting climate change, one common strategy is to ask consumers to limit certain activities that result in high greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs). While some GHG-curbing strategies (such as limiting car travel) are more feasible to implement than others (such as not having children), it’s important to consider the private value that consumers place upon each of their high-emission behaviors. This helps policy-makers understand what types of behaviors will be easier to change than others. For example, if a consumer requires a lot of money to limit the amount they drive but little money to reduce their meat consumption, then meat reductions may be easier to achieve than mileage limits.
This study explores consumers’ private costs of eliminating beef and reducing fuel consumption. The authors focused on U.S. adults primarily in the Mid-Atlantic region and used an auction to let participants reveal the minimum amount of money they would need to change their behavior over one week, one month, three months, six months, and one year. As GHG emissions from individual beef consumption make up approximately 17% of GHG emissions from individual vehicle use, participants were asked to stop eating beef vs. limiting vehicle use. In this way, the GHG reductions would be equivalent for both behaviors and easier to compare. Because individual climate actions will only be successful if enough people agree to do them, researchers were especially interested in seeing the minimum cost it would take to convince 50% of their sample to eliminate beef and reduce vehicle use.
The results imply that it would cost anywhere from $642 to $798 per tC02e (tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent) to convince 50% of U.S. consumers to stop eating beef for up to one year. For limiting vehicle use, the cost of mitigation per tCO2e was higher, ranging from $1,336 to $4,181. If we wanted 25% of U.S. consumers to change these behaviors, the abatement costs would be lower. However, it would still cost over $235 per tC02e, meaning the behavior change remains expensive. Convincing less than 25% of the population to change their diet and travel behaviors would be cheaper, but it likely wouldn’t have an effect on overall GHG emissions.
It’s interesting to note that across all time periods, the private costs for eliminating beef were lower than the costs for limiting vehicle use. This is promising for animal advocates, and from an environmental perspective, it suggests that policies targeting beef consumption will likely be more cost-effective than those that target personal vehicle use. Women, on average, required less compensation to change their behaviors, but other socio-economic factors didn’t stand out in the data. In other words, targeting certain demographics may not be an effective policy approach.
Although this study focused on a regional sample of U.S. adults, it provides helpful insights into what leads people to change their high-emission behaviors. Perhaps the most important takeaway is that behavior change will only be achievable when consumers feel the stakes are lower. Thus, one way environmental advocates can help is by making it easier for consumers to change their behaviors by pushing for more appealing, affordable meat alternatives and emissions-free vehicles.