5 August 2022

No to neighbourhood ‘nudging’ – energy leaderboards are no solution to sky-high bills

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In October 2021 Boris Johnson pledged that Britain could meet its ambitious net zero targets ‘without so much as a hair shirt in sight’ as the Government set out its plans to decarbonise the economy. ‘Green is good,’ he said, and not ‘inextricably bound up with a sense that we have to sacrifice the things we love’.

Rather than good, green will be very cold and very dark for millions of Brits this winter. We will be sacrificing heating and lighting, never mind the things we love. With energy bills at £3,615 by next year, we might be glad of a few hair shirts.

Don’t worry though, the Government is here to help…

Lis Costa, managing director of the Behaviourial Insights Team – aka the Nudge Unit – has said her team is ‘considering the full remit of its policy toolbox” to reduce household demand. Along with subsidies for vulnerable households, she has proposed sending letters to households to let them know how their energy use compares with their neighbours.

This is not the first time the Nudge Unit has proposed ‘energy leaderboards’. Back in 2011 they suggested emulating US firm Opower’s ‘success’ in a neighbourhood energy comparison scheme which resulted in a reduction of 2-3% in energy use.

If our woefully high gas and electricity bills, and the rising costs of fuel and food aren’t enough of a ‘nudge’ to reduce consumption, then nothing will be. You can’t nudge people when they are already beyond the bottom line. Trying to manipulate consumer behaviour to save 2% of energy seems like, well, a waste of energy.

And even if a 2% increase is achievable in the short term, will it last?

Consultant behavioural scientist Patrick Fagan suggests that ‘in the long run, it probably won’t work. Nudges tend to be short-term’. He points to a paper published last year saying that there were only four studies specifically examining the spillover effects of nudges, the findings of which were ‘mixed at best’.

Likewise, a 2019 BMJ study found that introducing calorie counts on to menus in American restaurants reduced average calorie consumption by 60 calories per meal right after the rollout, but a year later things were back to normal (with a slight increase, in fact). A study in the Journal of Environmental Management found that when Toronto introduced a plastic bag charge, there was a boost in the percentage recycling their bags in the first year, but it fell to baseline levels within two years after that.

Fagan argues that energy leader-boards ‘might be motivating to begin with, but eventually, people are unlikely to remember or care’.
Nudgers also seem to forget the law of unintended consequences, which has been demonstrated again and again. Fagan warns that ‘for everyone who finds the energy leader-board to be a bit of fun, you’ll have some instances where it turns neighbour against neighbour’ – and that is the point of the exercise.

In any case, neighbours have different circumstances. The professional couple who drive to their second home at weekends in the Range Rover cannot be compared to the family of five who must run the washing machine twice a day for clean clothes for school and work, or the elderly couple who need the heating set higher for chronic lung conditions. We all have different needs.

Energy leaderboards are a classic nudge, but a distasteful tool, reminiscent of communist bloc policing. What next, dunce caps for the worst energy consumers? Corner time in the close for gas guzzlers? Remove the covers of our electricity and gas meters so neighbours can come and inspect our selfish energy consumption on a daily basis?

Let us call this nudge what it is: peer pressure. The social force we teach our children to withstand is to be wielded against tax and bill-paying adult citizens by the Government.

Nor is this the first time. ‘Social norms’ were deployed by the Government and public heath bodies to encourage compliance with lockdown rules. Nudge Unit reports are littered with language that betrays a disdainful view of autonomy and agency. We have a ‘powerful tendency to conform’ according to one report which was published and then rapidly unpublished in the same week that Boris Johnson promised no hair shirts. And if the idea of an energy leaderboard letter chafes, be aware that, among myriad interventions, the same report proposed ‘stronger carbon taxes’ on meat and travel.

Successive UK governments have put the emissions-reduction agenda before affordability and security of supply. Reducing energy is not like reducing food waste. It represents an immiserating race to the bottom. A modern, prosperous and contented society requires energy. We expect the Government to provide energy security, not exert subliminal pressure to change people’s behaviour, purely in order to cover up its own policy failures.

The Nudge Unit is manifestly and obnoxiously obsessed with climate change, and out of touch with the plight of millions of households this winter. They have produced various reports with climate nudge suggestions from influencing children in schools, to taxing meat, to changing the weather reports (evident in the last heatwave!) to product placement in dramas.

Costa says ‘many, many people across the UK are very concerned about climate change and want to be able to do more to contribute to net zero goals’. No, this winter people are going to be far more concerned with how to keep the lights on and stay warm (and bear in mind that 8,500 people are estimated to have died due to cold homes last winter, when bills weren’t nearly as high).

It is not up to Costa or the Nudge Unit to say what household energy should be, or that subsidies should be the remedy for rising energy prices. It is the cross-party political consensus on climate/Net Zero that needs a nudge. Not us.

How much energy will be wasted sending household’s letters about energy usage? If a letter shaming my energy consumption comes through the letterbox this winter I shall burn it for warmth.

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Laura Dodsworth is an author, journalist, photographer and filmmaker.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.