Bellarmine News

Cutting Carbon Emissions – and Costs – with Behavioral Economics

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Greer Gosnell ’11

The aviation industry is known as a major contributor to global carbon dioxide emissions. Environmentalists and airlines alike are concerned with improving flight fuel efficiency, and economics alumna Greer Gosnell ’11 has found one simple solution: watch the pilots.

Gosnell co-authored a study that analyzed flight captain behavior on 40,000 Virgin Atlantic flights over an 8-month period. Highlighted recently in Harvard Business Review, the study drew on the principles of behavioral economics: they set personalized fuel-efficiency goals for flight captains, shared performance information, and offered performance incentives across the study period.

And it worked. The research team estimates that the program abated between 838,000-2.22 million kg of CO2, saving Virgin Atlantic as much as $5.4 million in fuel costs.

Gosnell is a Research Officer at the Grantham Institute for Research on Climate Change and the Environment at the London School of Economics and Political Science, where she recently completed her Ph.D. in environmental economics.

“Behavioral economics has proven effective in improving environmental outcomes in a number of areas, from energy efficiency in the home to increasing fuel efficiency to increasing the purchase of carbon offsets,” she said.

Gosnell discovered her passion for this field as an economics major at LMU, where she worked closely with faculty to hone her skills. She learned about professional research as a research assistant to Andrew Healy, and completed her first field and lab experiments for her honors thesis with Dorothea Herreiner.

“Dorothea and Andrew played an integral role in developing my interests in the field of economics,” she said. “In fact, Dorothea nudged me to the economics major despite my efforts to avoid it!”

She also credits her introductory philosophy class with professor Brian Treanor for sparking her interest in environmentalism. “Prior to attending LMU, I had little interest in environmental issues, and his expertise and enthusiasm inspired many, many students,” she said.

As her interest in the environment grew, she said, “I noticed the inefficiencies embedded in my own behavior the minute I started paying attention.” Years later, she found out that the same logic applies to pilots.

Read more about Gosnell’s study in Harvard Business Review.