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David MacKay, a professor in the Department of Physics at Cambridge has recently written Sustainable Energy - without the hot air, a book that aims to take the subjectivity out of the energy debate. Too many words are being stripped of their meaning by politicians, pressure groups and the media when deciding how we should power the the UK and not enough facts: "To make this comparison, we need numbers, not adjectives" he says.

David MacKay, a professor in the Department of Physics at Cambridge has recently written Sustainable Energy - without the hot air, a book that aims to take the subjectivity out of the energy debate. Too many words are being stripped of their meaning by politicians, pressure groups and the media when deciding how we should power the the UK and not enough facts: "To make this comparison, we need numbers, not adjectives" he says.

MacKay wants people to become conversant with "back of the envelope" calculations, and adopts this principle in his book. His results are stark, as the Economist notes in a book review: "Meeting Britain’s energy needs from onshore wind power would require covering literally the entire country in turbines, even assuming that the wind was guaranteed to blow". (Also covered briefly by my colleagues in the RSA's Arts & Ecology centre.)

This is exactly the sort of book that many people involved in encouraging pro-environmental behaviour change will dislike (and probably those in the renewables business for that matter). For instance at one point MacKay says:

We are inundated with a flood of crazy innumerate codswallop. The BBC doles out advice on how we can do our bit to save the planet – for example “switch off your mobile phone charger when it’s not in use;” if anyone objects that mobile phone chargers are not actually our number one form of energy consumption, the mantra “every little helps” is wheeled out.

Normally the idea behind such BBC-attributed advice is that in order to spark pro-environmental behaviour, you first need to foster pro-environmental attitudes. It's hoped that getting people to think about their mobile phone chargers will encourage people to think about other ways in which their actions impact on the environment.

I'm with MacKay on this, and think that encouraging behaviour change in this way is wrong. Most studies report the link between pro-environmental attitude and pro-environmental behaviour being weak. And in any case, energy-consumption in most people's minds is not a direct act of pollution like pouring a vat of chemical waste into a river. People are intuitive enough to feel (even if they don't calculate) that unplugging their chargers won't contribute much to the at times apocalyptic projections of the warmed-up world of the future.

I do think that behaviour can make a difference though, and as I wrote last month, I think one of the keys to that is in showing people, in an engaging way, that their actions contribute towards a larger effort. Finding the best way to motivate massive numbers of people is everything in behaviour change.

So in the following post, I'll adopt MacKay's style of rough calculations to show what sort of impact pro-environmental behaviour change could make.

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