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Incentives for sustainability really do work

Marc Lefkowitz  |  01/10/18 @ 9:00am  |  Posted in Transportation

It can be empowering to track, share and compare choices as consumers of energy and transportation services (the two largest contributors to climate change). It helps when individuals have options and tools for measuring their actions. Sharing from personal experience here…

<br />Mode choices in 2017 for CMNH employees participating in the company parking cash out program.<br />CMNH covered introductory use of UHBikes bike share for employees seen here using the bikes to enjoy a trip to the farmers market. <br />Dashboard of our renewable energy purchases through RECs for the  three months, including the one hundred percent offset shown.

Three months ago, our family decided to take the plunge into green energy, signing up with a company that sells renewable energy credits (RECs). RECs are a commodity that are being sold to individuals and companies who may be signed on to climate commitments. RECs that are bought in this market place represent a unit of power that can be certified by a third party to have come from a renewable source and have been “retired” or counted one time.

Residential customers like us can enter into a contract to buy RECs that equal 50% or 100% of our monthly electricity consumption. We opted for the no-cost 50% level. After a trial period of two months, we upped our commitment to 100%. The company bills us for our electric service, which is still supplied by the local utility, and charges us an additional $9/mo to purchase RECs which support wind farms in the U.S. In three months, we have purchased the equivalent of 783.5 kilowatts of clean energy. We have saved 1 ton of carbon emissions from being emitted in that time, the company calculates.

Compare that breathtakingly short and easy path to reducing 1 ton of carbon to the more hard won carbon reductions from living car lite. Since July, 2017 I have been counting commute trips on low- and no-carbon modes of transportation using the region’s multi-modal trip planner/tracker, Gohiocommute. As administrator for my workplace’s green commute incentive program, where commuting by a mode other than driving solo earns a monthly cash reward, I've seen the positive impact that having good data to report on sustainable transportion can have on decision makers. Ours is a parking cash out program—invented in the 1990s by UCLA Planning Professor Donald Shoup who calculated that free parking actually costs companies (and society in parking spaces, air pollution, and crashes). Companies can account for the imbalance for those who don’t drive solo by offering them cash instead of a parking spot. The Cleveland Museum of Natural History has offered its program, meeting a commitment to sustainability, for ten years.

This July, the Museum switched the program over to Gohiocommute, and hasn’t looked back since. The system generates data on every trip made, from carbon emissions to calories burned to money saved. For the past six months, I and 23 coworkers made 2,000 trips totaling 15,000 miles of not driving alone. We saved 3.4 tons of carbon dioxide, a heat-trapping gas, from entering the atmosphere. 300 of those alternative trips were made by yours truly on a bike, bus, on foot or in a carpool. Not only did our workplace reimburse each of us up to $50 a month in cash for helping it meet its commitment to the environment, we saved $1,660 in gas and expenses. More than half of my trips were made on a bike; my carbon offset from commuting in the second half of 2017 was 0.4 tons of carbon saved.

I write this not for back pats but to illustrate that incentives really do help move people toward doing the right thing.

(Also to illustrate how much more coal I need than gasoline—look at the time it takes to offset 1 ton of carbon from electricity from coal versus gas. RECs, three months, to the six months to offset 0.4 tons from multi-modal commuting.

Of course, there are other personal benefits to all this bike commuting. Gohiocommute estimates that I burned 33,840 calories in the last six months. Multiply this six month window over the course of the ten years that I have participated in—and been motived by—our parking cash out program and I would say I’ve benefitted—and so has my company in reducing its climate impact, promoting health and offering a nice perk to its workforce).

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