What Changes Behavior?

If we can agree that the goal is to get people to use less energy, less water, less oil; to get people to invest in greener buildings, greener technologies, greener transportation; then the question is – how do we do it?  How do we get to a state where people and companies are making more environmentally conscious choices? Ultimately, we must answer the question – What changes behavior?

Last month, I spent two weeks in Israel.  With its geographic location coupled with the space it inhabits politically, Israel has severe environmental and resource challenges – much more so than the United States.  With water scarce and the cost expensive, Israel has had to address these (and many other environmental issues) for decades.

When it comes to water, Israel gives a quota for “normal usage” to its residents.  Residents are charged a standard rate for the first 30 cubic meters (for a family of 4 every 2 months).  Above that limit, residents are charged a much higher rate, in addition to an over-usage penalty.

When it comes to gas, your eyes may be rolling lately at the price of gas in the US, but Israelis can pay as much as three times the price we do.  As a result, their cars are much smaller (SUV’s are a rarity) and public transit is robust and well-used.

As for energy usage, Israel has embraced solar technologies for more than 30 years.  Just take a look at the rooftops in Tel Aviv.  Nearly every one has a solar panel connected to the building’s water heater.

These are just a few examples of how Israel is addressing some of its sustainability challenges.  Now some might say that Israel, because of its geography and lack of resources, was forced to encourage its citizens to act more sustainably.  And that’s exactly the point.  Sometimes we need a push in the right direction in order to achieve meaningful results.

Which brings us to the US, where we are just beginning to make that push.  Gas, while more expensive of late, is still very cheap relative to other countries.  There is some consciousness around conserving electricity, but that’s minor at best.  And virtually no one thinks about the cost or availability of water in the US.  To many of us, it’s a cheap, limitless commodity, to be consumed as necessary without so much as an afterthought.

So how do we change our behavior?

There are three approaches, as I see them.  There’s education, there’s the carrot, and there’s the stick.

Here in NYC, public and private concerns have done a decent job of education.  The Mayor, for instance, touts his recently updated PlaNYC, which has brought environmental sustainability to the forefront of the City’s urban planning and development.  The public is beginning to get a sense, I feel, of the magnitude of the environmental issues we are facing.  But there is certainly a lot of room for growth.

As for the “stick”, the City, through the requirements for existing buildings through the Greener, Greater Buildings Plan (GGBP), has taken some very important steps towards mandating sustainability measures.  While the GGBP requirements (discussed previously here) do not impose harsh requirements on building owners, the plan does make owners take sustainability into account.

When it comes to the “carrot” or incentivizing approach, there is virtually nothing to speak of.  The City does not provide resources for greening existing buildings or new buildings.  The City does not provide any density bonuses for green buildings (as it does for affordable housing).  Nor does the City provide a streamlined permitting process for green buildings.    The City doesn’t even provide a PACE program, even though it is authorized to do so.

In short, New York City has taken some very good beginning steps towards encouraging changes in New Yorkers behavior.  But with all three approaches – education, carrot, stick – the City has much room for improvement.