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Carrots and sticks

There was an interesting article in the ‘Eureka’ section of the Times (April, 2010) where Ben Webster looked at how people respond to green messages. The article starts with an interesting story from Ben’s trip to a garden centre where his partner insisted on buying a large sack of peat – even though she is a keen birdwatcher and fully aware of the fact that peat extraction devastates the habitats of birds like hen hariers, golden plovers and skylarks – and that extracting peat releases millions of tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere. Replacing the 75 million bags of peat sold each year with the (often better) peat free alternatives would be the same as taking 350,000 cars off the road. The Government does know this and in 1999 it agreed a voluntary target with retailers to replace 90% of all growing media with peat free products by 2010. Hooray. The problem is that the peat free share had only only reached 53% by 2007 and is probably about 60% now – so that is still a lot of peat being dug up. Ben reports that B&Q, whilst professing to be ‘working towards eliminating peat in line with the Government target’ actually still stocks peat based products, that 46% of its compost sales last year were peat based, that it uses peat as the medium for the plants it grows and uses peat in ladscaping.

There have been numerous schemes to voluntarily reduce our dependence on plastic bags – has it worked …… Hmmmmmmm  …. well Ben says that six bllion free bags were handed out last year   …. but look at Eire where a 15 cent per bag mandatory price per bag was introduced in 2002 – resulting in a 90% (yes ninety percent) drop in bag use – in Eire each year each person uses on average 27 bags per head – compared to 220 per head in Brtitain. Ben explains that whilst some people respond to environmental messages – many do not. Our own reseach with Bucks New University in 2008 showed very much the same – we found that about twenty percent of people not only listened to green messages but actively went out of their way to live a more eco-friendy life. Up to about seventy percent of people had varying degrees of green engagement – some would do more if things were made simple – some would do more if they were made to do more – although there is a rump of between ten and twenty percent who actually couldn’t care less. Carrots are lovely – but they don’t always work – and sticks are sometimes necessary. The motor car industry promised for years that its voluntary scheme to produce cleaner cars would work – but failed to meet its own targets – but when EU legislation was introdced requiring significant carbon emission cuts by 2015 all of a sudden cars got greener and cleaner. As Ben says ‘well targeted regulation works better than wishful thinking’ and adds ‘and might even prevent a few family squabbles at garden centres’.

The Times Eureka Issue 7  April 2010 page 13