The power to conserve: a field experiment on electricity use in Qatar

While there have been great advances in understanding the beliefs and behaviour that affect residential energy use, the determinants of energy use among the top 1% of global users remains an unanswered question. There is some evidence that high users are most responsive to incentives to reduce use, but little is known about how to most effectively motivate them to do so.

To study this question, the authors implemented an experiment in Qatar, where residential customers have some of the highest per-capita energy use – and CO2 emissions – in the world. The study involved around 6,000 customers and tested the effect of messages related to identity: either a religious message quoting the Qur’an, or a message reminding households that the Qatari government prioritises energy conservation. Electricity use declined by 3.8% among the treatment group and both messages were effective. If this reduction were scaled up to all of Qatar, the savings would be equivalent to the energy consumed by nearly 57,000 homes over one year in the United States.

Key points for decision-makers

  • Electricity in Qatar is provided at subsidised rates to non-nationals and free of cost to Qatari nationals, which poses a unique challenge to reducing energy use.
  • Research into non-monetary interventions to reduce use is therefore critical in this context.
  • The authors use data consisting of around 207,000 monthly electricity meter readings from around 6,000 customers in Doha.
  • They targeted these customers with two randomised ‘nudge’-style interventions to motivate reduction in electricity use by evoking notions of identity. The first was a religious message quoting the Qur’an on the importance of conservation. The second was a ‘national’ message reminding people that the Qatari government prioritises energy conservation.
  • The messages led to an average 3.8% reduction in consumption per month, which translates to over 100 kWh per customer.
  • This suggests that low-cost non-monetary interventions can have sizeable effects on emission reductions among ‘super-users’ of electricity.
  • Survey data reveal the messages work best for people who feel personally responsible for climate change, and believe that energy saving actions are both easy to take and effective.