What Europe's 'capital of smog' might learn from 'nudge theory'

Poland has been described as the “capital of smog” with a majority of Europe’s major air pollution hot spots — but small, personal, behavioural changes – so-called “nudge theory” inspired by the research of 2017 Nobel Prize in economics winner Prof. Richard Thaler look like they could make a difference where diktats have failed.

Warsaw skyline – Wikipedia

Thaler, co-author of the 2008 book Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth and Happinesswon this year’s Nobel for his work on ways in which individuals can be encouraged to take actions in their own interests which en masse can add up to significant changes in an overall situation.

Nobel economics price winner, Richard Thaler. Photo by Flickr/Chatham House. CC BY 2.0

It may have particular application to the Polish pollution question.

Poland has experienced a quarter of century of unparalleled growth, that has gone hand in hand with the deterioration of air quality. According to the Chief Inspectorate of Environmental Protection, concentrations of PM2.5 and PM10 (inhalable particulate matters, with 2 diameters that are 2.5 or 10 micrometers or smaller) have been skyrocketing.

Capital of smog

A coal-based economy, loose regulatory measures, and commuting habits have landed Poland an infamous title of ‘Europe’s capital of smog’ as this 2016 report in the Financial Times showed. The veto power of car-owners and extractive industries, matched with a low public understanding of the issue cripple the efficiency of activists’ efforts to fix the causes of Poland’s air pollution crisis. Thirty-three Polish towns are in the top-50 most-polluted cities in Europe, according to a World Health Organization study.

That air pollution bears a number of severe health, economic and environmental consequences should not come as a surprise. In Poland alone, it causes an estimate of 43,000 premature deaths a year, or over 10 percent of all pollution-related deaths in the European Union. That translates into a heavy financial burden – infringement of the Clear Air for Europe directive can trigger a €900m penalty with the European Court of Justice expected to decide on a case against Poland later this year.

The high resource intensity of extractive industries threatens the sustainability of Poland’s very ecosystem and is a breach of social contract with future generations.

That being said, Poland will not flip its coal-based economy to renewables overnight. The industry provides employment for over 100.000 coal-miners, a powerfully vocal interest group, feared by every administration.

With urban residential heating and vehicles being the biggest pollution contributors, it is unfair to assume it’s all left in the hands of the government. Luckily, Poland’s administrative division provides a fairly high degree of legislative flexibility for the municipalities, creating a window of opportunity for informed mayors. A range of tools is available from tightening regulation, through subsidies for domestic boilers modernization, to investment in sustainable transportation modes.

However, a growing scholarship in the field of behavioural sciences, spearheaded by researchers such as Thaler and Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahnemen, suggests that desired outcomes can be achieved with much less of an effort than with traditional policymaking tools. The premise is simple: understanding why people behave the way they do and giving them options that align with their perception of what is in their best interests and in their power. It’s a key understanding that human decision-making is highly influenced by our habits, biases and perceptions.

Our intentions towards a given activity can be changed as simply as by imagining oneself performing an activity (Carroll 1978), whereas direct experience of extreme events (of i.e flood, forest fire, car accident) helps understand abstract risks (Demski & Capstick et al. 2017).

Give people a nudge

The very way information is presented can “nudge” people towards desired behaviour: municipalities who sent letters to their citizens about individual energy consumption have seen increase in energy efficiency in the coming years (OECD 2017), whereas changing the default option on administrative forms to a more environmentally friendly one has resulted in the overall bigger selection of that option (ibidem).

Whoever will be in power in Poland, the political cost of confronting powerful coal lobby will be a price too high to pay when talking policy. Instead of counting on government’s action, it is key to remember what we can do in our communities. Incremental change happens at the margins, and with the help of behavioural sciences, even a tiny effort can have an outstanding impact.

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        Carroll, J.S., (1978) The effect of imagining an event on expectations for the event: An interpretation in terms of the availability heuristic in: Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, Vol. 14
        Demski, C., Capstick, S., et al. (2017) Experience of extreme weather affects climate change mitigation and adaptation responses in: Climatic Change, Vol. 140 Ferguson, M.A.,
        OECD, (2017), Behavioural Insights and Public Policy: Lessons from Around the World, OECD Publishing, Paris

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