How do small improvements add up to big outcomes?
If you ask the International Energy Agency, one of the improvements they would mention is the simple use of low-energy light bulbs and other efficient lighting systems: we could prevent a cumulative total of 16 billion tons of carbon from being added to the world's atmosphere over the next 25 years. It sounds as if we will achieve a lot if everyone does a little.
Ask the Energy Saving Trust, and they might point out that standby buttons on many appliances use up to 90% of their normal power in standby mode. If everyone in the U.K. switched off the appliances they leave on standby we could save energy that is responsible for 4 million tonnes of excess carbon dioxide each year. Again, it appears that we achieve something big by doing something small.
The Department of Energy and Climate Change has calculated how much total energy could be saved in the U.K. by making small changes to a range of everyday household behaviours. Changes included such things as turning off radiators in unused rooms, turning lights off when not in use, taking showers instead of baths, air drying laundry instead of using a tumble dryer, only filling a kettle to the level required. The biggest impact would be if everyone turned their thermostat down by 2°C from 20°C to 18°C, resulting in a calculated annual saving of 33 Terawatt hours or 33,000,000,000 Kilowatt hours. A huge improvement from a small adjustment.
Unfortunately, these headlines give a false impression that small change is big, when it’s really nothing more than maths – multiplying a small number by 66 million people living in the U.K. or by 27 million U.K. households to arrive at a big figure. To keep a proper perspective on the gains, we should consider the incremental improvement to the overall carbon emissions or to the energy consumed by the total population.
Last year, all the world's nations combined pumped 38 billion tons of carbon dioxide. At this rate of emissions, if everyone adopted low-energy light bulbs and other efficient lighting systems as suggested, we would reduce total emissions by 1.6%.
In 2017, U.K. net emissions of carbon dioxide were provisionally estimated to be 367 million tonnes. If everyone in the country switched off the appliances they leave on standby we would reduce our carbon emissions by 1.1%. Similarly, energy use in the U.K. stands at around 2,220 Terawatt hours. If everyone turned their thermostat down by 2°C to 18°C, the energy we save would be 1.5%.
It may be true that many people doing a little adds up to a lot, but it does not automatically add up to a big difference when applied to climate change or power usage. Since we all emit greenhouse gases and all use power, almost everyone needs to make a big difference to their own behaviour to achieve a big change in total emissions or total power consumption.
However, making small changes to our everyday behaviour does make a big impact to our attitude. Our willingness to take the next step increases exponentially. The revelation of an action taken is that it alters the judgement on taking further action. To make a bigger difference we need to change not only individually but also collectively as communities. Civic action is about making change at this next level, to improve how we live alongside each other and share our finite resources. It’s about making our small changes count, for real.