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Europe Is Missing Out on a Huge Climate Opportunity - And €2.4Billion a Year in Energy Savings

26/06/2014 11:42 BST | Updated 25/08/2014 10:59 BST

Behavioural energy efficiency can help the EU make a big leap on climate

For the first time in memory, the U.S. is moving forward on climate, and the EU is stuck.

It's a surprising turn of events. For years, the United States was widely perceived as a climate change holdout, unwilling to make serious commitments to curbing carbon emissions. But everything changed on June 2 when the Environmental Protection Agency announced ambitious new standards for existing power plants. Now, the world is buzzing about what's possible at the next round of climate talks. Even China is hinting that it might be on board for a major global agreement.

Europe, meanwhile, is struggling. The EU is well known for setting the world's highest climate targets: in 2007, member states agreed to a 20 percent cut in carbon emissions by 2020, and they're about to commit to 40 percent by 2030. But hitting those targets is another thing. Member states are falling short, and they still need a comprehensive action plan to close the gap between aspirations and reality.

How can Europe get un-stuck?

There are lots of promising answers. Clean energy is one -- consider Germany, which used its huge solar and wind capacity to power up to 74 percent of its economy last month. Reducing energy demand is another approach. Denmark, for example, has invested heavily in energy efficiency, and as a result, it uses less power today than it did in 1990.

The challenge is time and money: it takes a lot of both to build a green grid like Germany's or a lean one like Denmark's. For EU member states that are behind on their climate goals, plans like these may not be feasible.

What if you could just ask people to use less energy, and then they would?

Researchers have tried -- and under most circumstances, it doesn't work. Programs that encourage people to save power because it's green or economical usually don't change their long-term habits.

But there's a clever tactic from social psychology that can make a lasting impact: give those same people clear, personalized insights into their energy use ("heads up: you used 21 percent more power than usual this month"), then add context by comparing them to each other ("that's a lot more energy than your neighbours used"). That's something you feel in your gut, and it inspires action. No one wants to be wasteful. Everyone wants to come out on top.

Scientists call this approach normative comparison. It's a nudge -- a proven approach to changing behaviour that can get out the vote, collect taxes, improve public health, you name it. Applied to home energy use, it's an astonishingly reliable way to motivate people to make smarter decisions, like turning off lights in empty rooms and turning down the air conditioner when they're away.

What happens when you scale this kind of approach over an entire continent? In Europe, you'd get 12 terawatt-hours in annual energy savings -- enough to light up 20,000 Eiffel Towers, or take five European countries off the grid entirely. Germany alone could reduce demand by 2.2 terawatt-hours. And for countries that need to catch up on their climate goals, time and money aren't a problem. Behavioural efficiency programs are two- to three-times cheaper than other forms of clean energy, and you can roll them out almost immediately.

The best news of all: by using less energy, Europeans can save €2.4 billion on their utility bills every year.

A few forward-thinking utilities have piloted behavioural efficiency programs in the United Kingdom, France, and Scandinavia, but right now their potential in Europe is largely untapped. That could change soon. Ireland and Denmark recently adjusted their climate regulations to support behavioural programs, and other states in the EU may follow their lead.

The next big win for the planet may not be a field of solar panels or a new emissions cap. It may well be people themselves, motivated to become better climate stewards than their neighbours down the block.