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Stephen Sheppard says that small communities can make some of the biggest change: ‘If people are close enough together and they’re united by a common purpose.’

DARRYL DYCK/The Globe and Mail

How can governments and climate-change activists best motivate the average person to wean themselves off fossil fuels? It turns out most people tune out abstract reduction targets promoted by politicians and aren't moved to action by the overwhelming scientific evidence that human activity is warming the climate. However, many are more likely to switch to clean-energy alternatives if they are working or competing with their neighbours and family members to install solutions that are both cheap and convenient, according to new research by a group of four University of British Columbia academics.

Stephen Sheppard is the lead author of a report by the Pacific Institute for Climate Solutions. It looked at seven projects that focused on getting people to live more sustainably using approaches such as co-ordinated neighbourhood retrofits, social-media campaigns targeting commuters and an energy-saving contest at dormitories across six universities. In an interview with The Globe and Mail, Dr. Sheppard discussed how people can move to reduce their carbon emissions.

What prompted you to take action against climate change?

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I remember being on a train to go to Norwich to give a talk at the University of East Anglia and seeing (in England we call them) mad March hares. In springtime, the hares run around in the fields and fight and they are really physical. This was in mid-February and I suddenly thought 'Oh, OK, wait a minute, we're not going to have mad March hares, we're going to have mad February hares.' This was in 2003. I was on sabbatical at Oxford at the time and I just decided that all the tools we use in planning, public engagement and environmental design visualization – we need to use that on climate change.

How many people in B.C. are concerned about global warming?

If you look at the numbers, and the polls vary a little bit, but anywhere between 60 to 80 per cent of Canadians, and I think the numbers are a little higher in British Columbia, are quite concerned about climate change. Those numbers have gone up and down a little bit, but they've been pretty steady for a while. We did some surveys a few years ago, 2006 and 2007, and even at that time, something like 70 per cent of the people that we surveyed in places like Prince George and the Kootenays were well aware of climate change because they had seen the mountain pine beetle. But they also gave us a list of 30 or more things that they've seen that told them climate change was happening. …In the rural areas, people are pretty aware. In the cities, campaigns like the Greenest City campaign in Vancouver and some of the initiatives in North Vancouver, Surrey and Richmond have helped to engage people a lot more.

Why do so few take any concrete action to lower their carbon footprint?

Why there's this disconnect between the high-concern levels and the low-action levels is people can't see anybody doing anything about it at the local level. They don't know what to do first, how to do it. Most people are busy and have got to get their kids to the hockey rink etc. You have to see it and have it be laid out for you in some ways that make it very tangible, visible and beneficial. And have co-benefits like cost savings or just simply engaging more with your community and not feeling so isolated.

Which of the seven approaches your team analyzed was most effective?

If you're looking for quick reductions in energy use and greenhouse gas emissions then the ones that seem to be the quickest tend to be more small-to-medium scale, like the [energy-saving] campaign that was run across [dormitories at] six university campuses. They got something like a 20-per-cent reduction [in energy use] in one month. This is all about the social engagement – there was a certain amount of learning that went on, but it was really mostly about who can outdo who [and] let's have a heck of a lot of fun doing it. And they had many brilliant ways using social media to engage …potentially a community that was ready for those kinds of fun initiatives and a good cause. The drop in energy survived that whole year, it went up a bit after the campaign ended, but it didn't go back to normal [consumption levels].

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Another approach involved the tiny Metro Vancouver community of Eagle Island retrofitting 26 homes. How did that succeed?

It was completely bottom-up. [Solutions work] if people are close enough together and they're united by a common purpose. And that's not climate change – it's 'we all live together.' 'If you're doing something, can I join in and have some fun?' That's really the model that Eagle Island used.

How were residents persuaded to join the campaign?

The use of thermal imaging was a really powerful tool. …There are lots of studies in the U.K. that show you get big reductions in energy use when you use thermal imaging. They need to see it to believe it, but what it's revealing is things that people have never seen before. You don't see energy, you don't see carbon, you don't see where you're losing money out of the corner of the roof or that particular window. That door, that roof, that window,' that's where you're spending your money and that's what you've got to fix. The light goes on, 'Whoa, that's all I have to do is fix those windows?'

What can the average person do to reduce their carbon footprint?

Inform yourself a little bit. … There are sites like the B.C. Livesmart website that the government runs on climate change and energy, Powersmart by BC Hydro is another one. But a lot of those are still focused on individuals though. One of the websites discussed in the report [is one] that we're working on at UBC: the Community Energy Explorer. It's an online tool to help people understand the bigger picture about renewable energy in the metro Vancouver region. It maps many of the renewable energy sources that communities have within their own boundaries that are largely unused at this point. In Europe, whole cities are run on renewable energy. Vancouver itself has stated it wants to be 100-per-cent renewable. There's a lot of renewable energy where we live, we're just not tapping it.

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This interview has been condensed and edited.

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