Monday, August 21, 2006

Social Acceptability and Air Quality

I was at a friend's for dinner last night and we got into a huge debate about what it's going to take to get people to cut their energy use sufficiently to improve air quality and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

I'm in Newfoundland right now and talking about air quality here is way different than in Ontario: there isn't really a problem with air quality here. The population is much smaller and less dense than in southern Ontario, and any emissions are blown away by the consistent high winds here in any case.

I was arguing that social pressure might be a useful tool for getting people to change their behaviour: if your neighbors think less of you for driving to the corner store rather than walking, would you be less likely to take the car? Or leave your lights on when you're not in the room? Would store owners persist in blasting the air conditioning while having their front door open onto the street if people associated that action with waste and their childrens' poor health?

After all, it seems to have worked for the anti- tobacco lobby: fifteen years ago, most smokers would have felt comfortable lighting up almost anywhere. Now, the smokers I know light up only in private, mainly because they are made to feel like pariahs if they do it in public.

Still, this approach might only work in a region like southwestern Ontario: where the threat of a blackout or similar energy crisis seems real, the air pollution hanging above the cities is visible, and people who have respiratory disease like asthma feel the impact of air pollution on their health. I think that it would be very tricky to make the connection between airborne pollutant emissions and poor health for the public here.

And the concept of an energy crisis..? In Newfoundland, the crisis is still that the province gave up so much hydroelectric power for practically nothing... there is no sense here that energy conservation is something that would benefit the community.

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