Increasing energy- and greenhouse gas-saving behaviors among adolescents: a school-based cluster-randomized controlled trial

Abstract

Individual behavior change can serve as a key strategy for reducing energy use to mitigate greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and improve energy security. A theory-based, school-based intervention to promote energy- and GHG-saving behaviors was developed by applying strategies and approaches from prior successful work in health behavior change. The focus was on changing behaviors rather than increasing knowledge, awareness, and attitudes, making extensive use of experimentally validated behavioral theory and principles. The intervention was evaluated in a cluster-randomized controlled trial. Public high school students (N = 165) in a required course were randomized by teacher to receive a 5-week, five-lesson behavior change curriculum promoting changes to reduce home electricity-, transportation-, and food-related energy use and GHG emissions or their usual coursework. Students reported their energy- and GHG-saving behaviors at baseline and 6 weeks later (1 week after the completion of the curriculum for the treatment group students). Effects were tested with hierarchical linear models to account for potential clustering within classrooms. Students randomized to receive the curriculum statistically significantly increased their total energy- and GHG-saving behaviors compared to controls [adjusted difference = 0.43 on a scale from 0 to 6 behavioral categories, 95 % confidence interval (CI) = 0.07 to 0.80, p = 0.02; number needed to treat (NNT) = 4.1]. The largest effects occurred in hang drying clothing (adjusted difference = 0.098, 95 % CI 0.028 to 0.165, NNT = 4.1) and shutting off appliances and other energy-using devices when not in use (adjusted difference = 0.095; 95 % CI 0.055 to 0.135; NNT 3.5). These results indicate that a theory-driven, school-based classroom intervention can increase energy- and GHG-saving behaviors among adolescents.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    By energy- and greenhouse gas-saving actions or behavior change, we mean the following: changing habits or repeated behaviors such as hang drying clothes rather than using a clothes dryer and bicycling rather than driving, purchasing and installing technology such as an more energy efficient refrigerator, settings and control behaviors such as lowering thermostat temperature and reducing pool pump use, maintenance behaviors such as cleaning furnace filters, eliminating wasteful energy uses such as extra refrigerators and DVRs, and using window coverings to better reduce solar radiation in hot weather.

  2. 2.

    For a review of studies applying social cognitive theory to successfully change behavior, see Social Foundations of Thought and Action (Bandura 1986) and Self-Efficacy: The Exercise of Control (Bandura 1997).

  3. 3.

    The “working backwards” exercise was developed and refined by the senior author Dr. Thomas N. Robinson for guiding behavior change intervention design.

  4. 4.

    This was only a teaching tool, and was not meant to actually quantify CO2 emissions in our study.

  5. 5.

    Goals coupled with feedback increase error management, thereby improving success; in other words, feedback regarding errors yields information for people about whether their picture of reality is aligned with what is required to attain their goal and allows them to adjust their actions accordingly (Frese and Zapf 1994). Feedback also functions by providing confirmation of the effectiveness of one’s actions, which improves confidence in long-term abilities (self-efficacy), and reinforces and increases the likelihood of similar future behavior (conditioning) (Bandura 1982; Bandura and Schunk 1981).

  6. 6.

    We attempted to avoid certain extrinsic motivators, such as money, because these often result in a reversal or weakening of behavior once the external incentive is removed (Stern 2000; Stern and Gardner 1981; Hirst 1984). Moreover, it is important to consider intrinsic motivators when behavioral persistence is desired and resources are limited.

  7. 7.

    All final curriculum materials can be downloaded here: http://peec.stanford.edu/behavior/HighSchoolCurriculum.php.

  8. 8.

    1 lb CO2 = 230 1-L balloons. This is derived from the following: molecular weight of CO2 = 12 + 16 + 16 = 44; (454 g/1 lb) × (1 mol/44 g) × (22.5 L/1 mol) = 230 L CO2/1 lb.

  9. 9.

    Driving more efficiently was taught as an option for participants who lived far from school and had to drive. While the survey included questions to assess self-efficacy with respect to driving more efficiently, there were no questions to assess behavior change in driving efficiency because it was not a focus of the curriculum for most participants and survey space was limited for the numerous component behavior questions this would entail.

  10. 10.

    We included reduction of bottled and canned beverages because the total energy required for bottled water can range from 5.6 to 10.2 MJ/L, compared to tap water production which usually requires about 0.005 MJ/L, for treatment and distribution (Gleick et al. 2009). 1 kWh = 3.6 MJ.

  11. 11.

    For example, an increase in the absolute rate of behavior from 10 to 20 % is a 10 % absolute increase but a 100 % relative increase, while an increase in the absolute rate from 50 to 60 % is still a 10 % absolute increase but a 20 % relative increase.

  12. 12.

    36 % of 5.8 % is 2 %.

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Acknowledgments

This study was supported in part by a grant from the Precourt Energy Efficiency Center at Stanford University and the Children’s Health Research Institute at Stanford University. The lead author was supported in part by a Stanford Interdisciplinary Graduate Fellowship and the Emmett Interdisciplinary Program in Environment and Resources. We thank Farish Haydel for assistance with database management and data analysis; Sally McCarthy for logistical and implementation support; the participating students, teachers, and administrators at the participating California high school; June Flora, Ph.D. and the students at a nearby high school for their assistance with the development of the curriculum; and Anisha Jain for graphic design.

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Correspondence to Marilyn Cornelius.

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Marilyn Cornelius and K. Carrie Armel contributed equally to this work.

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Cornelius, M., Armel, K.C., Hoffman, K. et al. Increasing energy- and greenhouse gas-saving behaviors among adolescents: a school-based cluster-randomized controlled trial. Energy Efficiency 7, 217–242 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12053-013-9219-5

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Keywords

  • Residential
  • Energy
  • Climate change
  • Greenhouse gas
  • Social cognitive theory
  • School
  • Behavior change
  • Barriers
  • Intervention
  • Cluster-randomized controlled trial