Despite purporting to be aligned with sustainability values, committed environmentalists as a group consume no less water, energy or housing space than other groups, a Swinburne study has found.
In his extensive research into Melburnian lifestyles, Professor Peter Newton found some uncomfortable truths about energy consumption - even by those who regard themselves as ‘committed greens'.
The results to be published shortly in a new book, Urban Consumption, sound a warning to governments looking to the community to voluntarily lower consumption rates to reduce Australia's carbon footprint.
"The research shows there is no linear connection between informing, raising awareness and developing concern among people, and eliciting change," Newton said. "Instead, governments will have to persist with levers such as regulation, taxing, incentives and education to encourage consumption reduction."
Newton said there is a pressing need for Australians to heed the 'lower consumption' message. "If everyone on the planet aspired to the living and consumption patterns of Australians, you'd need at least two additional planet Earths to supply those resources," he said.
In his Australian Research Council funded study, Newton interviewed more than 1200 people from a mix of suburbs about lifestyle, consumption practices and intentions. Based on response patterns, the respondents fell into three distinct groups: Enviro-Sceptics, Material Greens and Committed Greens.
The Enviro-Sceptics cluster was male-dominated, older and evenly dispersed across Melbourne. They had a low level of preparedness to make higher personal payments for the environment and had the lowest proportion choosing to buy green-labelled products, give up plastic bags or donate time to environmental projects.
Material Greens generally viewed the environment as important but not worth paying for. Despite a moderate level of support for the view that nature's balance is delicate and easily upset, they were opposed to paying more taxes or higher utility charges.
In contrast, Committed Greens were strongly pro-environmental in their beliefs and indicated a willingness to sacrifice economically for an environmental benefit. They were consistent with their ‘green-choice' behaviours relating to their purchase of green-labelled products, declining the use of plastic bags and volunteering time for green projects.
However, when power and water bills were examined, the hard evidence showed Committed Greens as a group consumed no less than the other two groups. Only in one category - carbon intensity of urban travel - did they have lower scores.
In order to reduce consumption levels, Newton said it is not enough to just be willing to pay more: you must use less.
He has identified four main barriers to behaviour change: cost, lack of time, lack of information to determine the best approach, and difficulty organising ‘how' to do it. These, he said, give clues for where government intervention could best be targeted using the levers available to it.
Over-subscription to government incentives, such as the solar panels rebate scheme, shows people are willing to change if there are financial incentives, he said. But the survey results indicate that broadcast-style information campaigns promoting lower consumption haven't hit the mark.
Despite the challenges, Newton is hopeful that a sustainable future is possible. But it will require different lifestyles, lower consumption, and more investment in sustainable infrastructures and built environments.