Environmentally friendly behaviours of Canadian households and the impact on residential energy consumption

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Serge Legault, Special Surveys Division

In the past decade, Canadian households have increasingly engaged in activities that could be considered "environmentally friendly," 11  yet residential energy consumption has grown during the same period.

Intuitively, it might be expected that households reporting a higher level of environmentally friendly activities would also be those with a smaller impact on energy consumption. Until recently, this hypothesis was difficult to validate or refute due to a lack of available information. However, thanks to the 2007 Households and the Environment Survey (HES), it is now possible to test this hypothesis for Canadian households.

What you should know about this study

The 2007 Households and the Environment Survey (HES) and its Energy Use Supplement were used to conduct this study. The 2007 cycle of the HES had two components. First, a telephone survey was conducted to collect information on Canadian households' environmental practices and behaviours. Second, all respondents to the telephone component were sent a paper questionnaire on dwelling characteristics, household appliances, electrical devices, the heating and cooling system and residential energy consumption for the 2007 calendar year. The final size of the probability sample is 11,241 households.

The HES combined with its supplement provides the necessary information to analyze the relationship between environmentally friendly behaviour and energy consumption in Canadian households.

Trends in residential energy consumption in Canada, 1990 to 2007

Energy intensity is the total amount of energy consumed per unit of heated area in gigajoules per square metre (GJ/m2). Since the early 1990s, Canadian households have reduced their energy intensity by approximately 20% (Chart 4). This phenomenon is probably related to increased consciousness, awareness campaigns, economic incentives and the greater availability of energy-efficient products. However, residential energy consumption rose just over 10% despite the efficiency gains achieved from 1990 to 2007 (Chart 5). A similar finding was presented to the OECD, in a report by Kriström, 12  that indicated efficiency improvements are often eclipsed by increasing demand.

Development of the green index and identifying green households

A household's contribution to environmentally friendly behaviour is measured using an index (green index). The green index used in this study was calculated using 36 variables drawn from the 2007 HES. It consists of variables on various ecological practices or behaviours, such as water conservation, composting and recycling, transportation decisions, purchasing decisions and actions regarding home heating and cooling (see the list "Components of the green index" at the end of this article for more details).

A household's green index is determined by calculating the ratio of the sum of the environmentally friendly behaviours reported (each "good" response is worth one point) and the number of questions for which the household was eligible. For example, households with no recycling program in their area are not "penalized" if they do not recycle. Households are then sorted in ascending order in the resulting green index. Units in the upper quartile are designated as green households, that is, households with more environmentally friendly behaviour.

The development of such an index is necessarily subjective in nature. However, it is partly based on other similar indexes such as National Geographic's GreendexTM13  This index has been used since 2008 to make international comparisons of environmentally friendly behaviour in 17 countries (including Canada).

Respondent profile according to the green index

The following variables are most often mentioned in studies 14 , 15  to try to explain energy consumption: type of dwelling, income, education level and family size. In addition to these variables, dwelling size and tenure are considered in this study. Table 2 presents a profile of households based on the result obtained by calculating the green index.

An analysis of Table 2 reveals several broad trends. As may be seen, green households have a different socio-economic profile from other households. More specifically, green households could be described as being more educated, wealthier, larger in size, with a majority of them owning their home and living in a single house with a larger-than-average heated area. Green households also consume 15% more energy for their dwellings than other households. The latter finding may seem contradictory, but the research conducted by Gatersleben et al. 16  concludes that the relationship between environmentally friendly behaviours and energy consumption is generally weak.

Households' energy consumption therefore appears to be attributable to socio-economic factors, and environmentally friendly behaviour would seem to have little impact. For example, the most conscientious households are often those with above-average income and hence a higher level of energy consumption owing to their lifestyle.

The results of empirical studies 17  show that despite the fact that people agree that more must be done to protect the environment, the environmentally friendly behaviours most often adopted are ones that require little investment of time or money, and they usually have only a minor impact on energy consumption.

Links between environmentally friendly behaviour and energy consumption

There are many factors that may explain energy consumption. One of the best tools for isolating the effects of these factors is multiple regression.

A multiple regression model was developed to try to identify the main factors that may "explain" energy consumption at the household level and determine whether environmentally friendly behaviour based on the green index is significant (Table 3, Model 1).

The dependent variable is annual energy consumption as obtained by the HES.

The independent or explanatory variables are the following:

  1. type of dwelling
  2. income
  3. highest level of education attained by a member of the household
  4. household size
  5. heated area of the dwelling
  6. tenure (owner or renter).

In addition to these variables, an independent variable indicating whether the household is green was added to the model. Multiple regression was performed on the basis of the HES probability sample design.

The results of the multiple regression on energy consumption (Model 1) indicate that the significant independent variables (p value<0.01) are type of dwelling, heated area, number of persons in the household and tenure. Education level and household income do not appear as significant variables, and being a green household has no affect on the consumption level according to the proposed model.

The second multiple regression model uses households' energy intensity rather than annual consumption as the dependent variable (Table 3, Model 2).

The results of the multiple regression on energy intensity reveal relationships that are different from those that emerge from the regression on total consumption. As may be seen in this second model, as in the first model, the main independent variables are type of dwelling, heated area, number of persons in the household and tenure. However, being a higher-income household or a green household also has some influence on the household's level of energy intensity (such households exhibit better energy efficiency). In both cases, the contribution is modest but significant according to the model.

In summary, the modelling results appear to show that residential energy consumption in Canada is largely related to factors such as type of dwelling, heated area and number of persons in the household. Environmentally friendly behaviour has little effect on households' annual energy consumption.

However, being a green household does have an impact on energy intensity (tending to lower it), as the second model shows. One interpretation of these results would be that the households are aware that there may be economic benefits in conserving residential energy, but these benefits are often offset by the desire to maintain their quality of life. It can also be assumed that since there is a relationship between being a green household and income level, green households are more able to bear the costs related to installing more energy-efficient systems.

The results of the modelling agree with those of the study by Jeeninga et al., 18  which concludes that "an intensive lifestyle in an energy-efficient household usually results in greater energy demand than a less intensive and less efficient household." [translation]

Components of the green index

Behaviour or activity
Eligible respondents
Lower the temperature when asleep
Respondents who have at least one thermostat
Use energy-saving lights
All respondents
Use dimmers on lights
All respondents
Unplug electronics for extended absences
All respondents
Reduce heating in certain rooms
All respondents
Use a clothesline or drying rack
All respondents
Use fans in the summer
All respondents
Close the curtains on hot days
All respondents
Apply weather-stripping around windows
All respondents
Dress warmer instead of increasing the temperature
All respondents
Use a low-flow shower head
All respondents
Use a low-flow toilet
All respondents
Use sprinklers on a timer (lawn)
Respondents who do not live in an apartment, who had a lawn last summer and reported watering it with a sprinkler or sprinkler system
Use sprinklers on a timer (garden)
Respondents who do not live in an apartment, who had a garden last summer and reported watering it with a sprinkler or sprinkler system
Turn off the tap when brushing teeth
All respondents
Ensure that the washing machine is full before turning it on
All respondents
Ensure that the dishwasher is full before turning it on
All respondents
Rain barrel or cistern
Respondents who do not live in an apartment
No chemical fertilizers applied to lawn
Respondents who do not live in an apartment and had a lawn or a garden last summer
No chemical pesticides applied to lawn
Respondents who do not live in an apartment and had a lawn, garden or outdoor plants last summer
Amount of paper recycled per week
Respondents who have access to a recycling program for paper
Amount of plastic recycled per week
Respondents who have access to a recycling program for plastic
Amount of glass recycled per week
Respondents who have access to a recycling program for glass
Amount of metal recycled per week
Respondents who have access to a recycling program for metal
Items taken to hazardous waste depot
Respondents who have access to a municipal, provincial, or private household hazardous waste depot
Separate kitchen waste from the rest of garbage
All respondents
Separate yard waste from the rest of garbage
Respondents who do not live in an apartment and had a lawn or a garden last summer
Windows - other natural cleaners
All respondents
Purchase energy or water-saving household appliances
Respondents who purchased any major appliance in the last five years
Purchase better-quality items even though they may be more expensive
All respondents
Purchase organic foods
All respondents
Purchase green cleaning products
All respondents
Use reusable grocery bags
All respondents
Importance of fuel efficiency
Respondents who leased or bought a motor vehicle for personal use in the past 12 months
Ecological principal method of travel to work during the colder months
Respondents who worked outside the home during the last 12 months
Ecological principal method of travel to work during the warmer months
Respondents who worked outside the home during the last 12 months
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