for goods and services in a way that uses less energy and/or emits fewer GHGs per unit of output.) What is the potential for changing consumer behavior and preferences? The United States has larger per capita energy use than many other countries with an equal or higher standard of living, such as Japan and most European countries. This differential is no doubt due to a variety of economic, demographic, geographic, and cultural factors, including differences in energy prices and energy efficiency. The extent to which the gap derives from differences in consumer desires for energy-intensive goods and service is less clear.
Consumer choices among market offerings in different societies shape demand for everything from living space and electric appliances to dietary choices. For instance, the social dynamics leading to larger, more dispersed dwellings, manifest in suburban development, is an important factor in contemporary U.S. energy use. The pattern of low-density suburban development gained momentum in the 19th century with the advent of electric street cars, and it accelerated during the mid-20th century after the widespread introduction of automobiles and freeways lowered the cost of living and working farther from city centers. Social preferences for lower density and more living space thus have deep roots in American society, and changing these patterns can be extremely challenging. Yet many of America’s central cities and inner-ring suburbs have remained vital over the past century; many urban planners and advocates for “smart growth” find that interest in denser development is growing. For instance, as the population ages, many older people seek smaller homes closer to amenities and services (Myers and Gearin, 2001). Immigrant groups have also tended to migrate to central cities and inner suburbs. Technologies that lower the cost of living in denser communities (for instance, quality, affordable transit, and car-sharing programs) have been proposed as an impetus for more compact living and working environments (Sperling and Gordon, 2009). Box 3.1 summarizes key findings from a recent NRC study that evaluated the linkages among urban development patterns and GHG emissions in depth.
Environmental awareness about energy security and global climate change are on the rise (Curry et al., 2007). Levels of concern fluctuate with the changing importance of other social, economic, and environmental issues, and the strength of concern varies across segments of the population (Leiserowitz et al., 2008). But it remains clear that much of the U.S. population views climate change as an important public policy problem (Pew Center, 2009a). As Americans become increasingly informed about climate change, does this concern translate into new consumption patterns?
Social science research in this area suggests that information and attitudes alone are unlikely to prompt the sorts of changes in long-standing patterns of technology use