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University of Basel

Research in the Spirit of Sustainability (01/2015)

Not all that is green is sustainable

Oliver Klaffke

In the Department of Social Sciences at the University of Basel, Paul Burger conducts research into sustainable behavior. He examines its consequences, how to encourage it, and the reasons why people choose to live by sustainable principles.

“Whether someone uses LED lights in their home or reduces the amount of water used to flush their toilet has little relevance to sustainability as a whole,” says Professor Paul Burger, head of the sustainability research group in the Department of Social Sciences at the University of Basel. According to Burger, decisions that trigger further changes have much more impact. Sustainable decisions “pull strings” – and these are what interest him.

For example, someone who chooses not to have their own car not only helps to cut down on fossil fuels, but also reduces the amount of space they need. This decision can also contribute to a reduction in traffic on the roads, which in turn leads to a lower accident rate. A person without a car is also more likely to shop in their local area rather than at a shopping center outside the city, helping to keep the city center alive.

Taking stock

In theory at least. The actual consequences of foregoing a personal car is one of the questions raised in the research program run by Burger’s group. “At first glance, this is a good thing from a sustainability perspective,” says the sociologist. “But we don’t really know what impact the decision will ultimately have on sustainability.” The money a person saves by not buying a car could easily be used for overseas vacations. The reduction in their carbon footprint would then disappear in the aircraft’s contrails. Scientists refer to this as the “rebound effect”, when good intentions to increase efficiency end up achieving exactly the opposite. “This would not be in the interests of sustainability,” says Burger.

The question of how to encourage sustainable behavior is another focal point for the researchers in Basel. As part of the Swiss Competence Center for Research SCCER-CREST, which looks at socioeconomic issues connected to the energy transition, they are examining the conditions under which people opt for sustainable energy solutions. The aim is to assess the likelihood that measures to encourage citizens to curb their energy consumption will be successful. What is the effect of education campaigns? How successful are attempts to influence the values and attitudes of individuals? How do people respond to different pricing models? Which reduces energy consumption: intelligent electricity grids or an initiative such as that for 2000-watt households? “We hypothesize, among other things, that program design and social learning processes play an important role,” says Burger with conviction. With this knowledge of how to initiate changes in behavior, his team hopes to help politicians, authorities and NGOs to better achieve sustainability targets and formulate the right arguments.

Not always that easy

The road to sustainability is not always clear, as an example from India demonstrates. In the last few years, programs have been launched in rural areas to build toilets in order to improve hygiene and therefore the health of the people. However, an investigation has shown that the population pays less attention to the health benefits. “The people in these areas view the time gained as very important,” says Burger. They no longer need to walk long distances to go to the toilet, and the secure space also makes the women safer. At the same time, the people develop greater self-esteem. Without accompanying research, the actually perceived benefits of improved sanitary facilities would have remained unknown. “This sort of knowledge allows future campaigns to be better planned and increases their chances of success,” says Burger.

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