Technical abatement and behavioural change. Warning: high yawn factor

In its famous series of reports on the potential for cutting greenhouse gas emissions, Mackinsey, a consultant, restricts its “marginal abatement cost curve” to technical or technological measures and explicitly excludes behavioural change. So you get a list of things like installing insulation and building wind farms. But you don’t get on that list things like putting on a pullover or taking the bus (instead of the car).

On the face of it, it seems to be a straightforward distinction. One is about machines and kit. The other is about people doing things.

In fact it is a false and a foolish distinction.

It is a false distinction because behaviour and technology are inseparable. Installing insulation is just as much about behaviour as about technology. I have to make a decision to google for an insulation chappie and then call him up. I have to ask the boss for some hours off work. I have to juggle with my credit cards to come up with the cash. None of that is technology. It looks like behaviour to me. You can make the same case for everything.

Similarly, putting on a jumper is a technological intervention. The jumper is a piece of technology invented by the sheep about 2 million years ago and adopted by man some 10,000 years ago.

In fact, the labelling which Mackinsey gives – “technical” and “behavioural” is a deceptive taxonomy. A more accurate taxonomy would be “you need big business to do it” (build power stations) and “you don’t need big business to do it” (put on a jumper or get pissed at home instead of flying to Spain to do it).

Further it is a foolish distinction. The purpose of an abatement curve is to demonstrate the relative cost of interventions. We want to know the cost because we want to know which are the lowest cost measures. Well, jumpers are a low cost measure. But they’ve excluded them. Driving slowly is a low cost measure. Left of the list. So, they are explicitly excluding a bunch of measures which are cheap! Hello. For all we know it could be way cheaper to cut emissions than we are being told, just we haven’t found the behavioural triggers … because they are being taken off the agenda.

Here is an irony. Mackinsey claims at the beginning of its report to avoid “any assessment of policies, political implementation programmes and other governmental internventions. It is strictly intended to provide an objective fact base of the abatement potential and costs of abatement measures…” But with its simplistic distinction between technology and behaviour and its exclusion of behavioural measures, it is being very political and very subjective.

Is this intellectual wooliness from Mackinsey? What was that about sheep?

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