Small is difficult

The Guardian describes a classic problem for governments trying to modify behaviour. It involves the Carbon Trust, an agency set up to encourage lower–carbon-emitting lifestyles and business practices in Britain:

The Carbon Trust has a £100m budget to help businesses save energy, embrace new technologies and help to combat climate change. But David Frost, director-general of the British Chambers of Commerce, said a survey of his members had revealed widespread disillusionment.

‘Small businesses understand that they have to make changes; but what they were saying was, there’s a lack of effective help for them,’ he said.

He said one of the trust’s main services, a free energy audit, was only available to firms with an annual fuel bill of £50,000 or more.

Governments are big, unwieldy things staffed by people with credentials and clear responsibilities. They do best when they can deal with other big, unwieldy things staffed by people with similar skills. The program David Frost mentions seems like a fine idea, but obviously requires a significant degree of professionalization in the companies that choose to take part — the Carbon Trust wants site plans and an opportunity for their consultant to “meet with key members of staff,” and promises follow-up briefings for senior management and perhaps for technical staff and so on and on and on.

The Carbon Trust doubtless gets a lot of bang for its bureaucratic buck this way. One consultant can go out and save a company thousands of pounds in wasted energy and cut carbon emissions from power generation proportionately. Britain’s big businesses are the low-hanging fruit in the carbon-cutting orchard.

The question is, though, how much of the U.K.’s greenhouse-gas problem comes from big energy users and how much comes from small businesses — which, according to the Department of Trade & Industry, provide a greater percentage of Britain’s jobs than large businesses do — and individuals. Big businesses already have a huge incentive to cut their energy use (if I had a £50,000 energy bill I’d be keeping pretty close tabs on it) and probably have professional engineers, or at least building managers, to help them do it. The woman who runs a clothing store or the partners in a small accounting firm probably don’t.

Yet the Carbon Trust’s energy-audit program is overkill for a small business, and so will just about anything the Carbon Trust dreams up to try to extend its help in that direction. Having been self-employed for a bit, in the incredibly simple occupation of writing freelance out of my bedroom, I can attest to how atrocious dealing with the government is as the smallest of small-businesspeople. Just figuring out the tax implications of buying a laptop computer can take most of the afternoon, and I’ve no doubt it’s the same in any industrial democracy with a well-developed state apparatus, Britain included. Governments don’t deal well with small. They’re elephants trying to shake hands with mice.

Unfortunately, small is where it’s at, particularly where conservation is concerned. Small improvements times many, many people equals huge results. We’ve all seen the advertisements telling us what a huge difference it would make if everyone replaced one 100-watt bulb with a compact fluorescent — vastly more than energy audits at every one of Britain’s 6,000 large companies (ones with more than 250 employees) could.

It’s simply unreasonable to expect anything as clumsy as a government agency to reach all the people who need to be reached if the fruit is going get picked all the way up to the treetops. The only way to make that happen is for individuals to choose to do these things, probably in response to higher electricity prices — pushing people to get on with the conservation projects they’ve already thought of but that aren’t worthwhile yet, like reinsulating walls and replacing old draughty windows — combined with a thorough campaign explaining some possibilities they might not have considered yet.

Energy audits for big firms? I wouldn’t bet my climate on them. At work and at home, it’s going to have to come from us.

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One response to “Small is difficult

  1. Pingback: Carnival of the Green No. 84 « The EcoLibertarian

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