By Chris Mooney

In an unusual experiment that could have major implications for the role of corporations in fighting climate change, Richard Branson’s Virgin Atlantic Airways recently teamed up with economists to try to “nudge” the company’s pilots to use less fuel, using a variety of behavioral interventions.

And it apparently worked. The intervention was so cost effective, the researchers say, that it “outperforms every other reported carbon abatement technology of which we are aware.”

The study suggests that Virgin — which has long had a sustainability program, and whose founder is a major champion of climate change action — could prove a model for others in the airline industry, and beyond, when it comes to shaping how employee behavior (including very high-level, skilled employees) affects the environment.

The Virgin Atlantic experiment involved a huge volume of data — from 40,000 flights made by 335 captains in 2014. Pilots’ fuel use was measured during three separate flight phases: before the plane takes off, while it is operated in the air and then on the ground post-landing. The results, authored by Greer Gosnell of the London School of Economics and Political Science along with two University of Chicago economists, were just released as a working paper by the National Bureau of Economic Research. Virgin Atlantic has also released its own description of the research here.

“When the university team approached us about doing an evidence-based study on employee engagement on sustainability, we saw it as a fantastic opportunity to work more effectively with our pilots on fuel and carbon efficiency,” Emma Harvey, who heads Virgin’s sustainability team, said in a press statement. “They were certainly up for the challenge.”

“These small-cost interventions can really have large ramifications for savings, not only for the airline, but for society,” added Robert Metcalfe, one of the study’s authors and an economist at the University of Chicago. The cost was so low, he said, because the study consisted of simply sending Virgin’s pilots various types of communications about their fuel use by mail to their home addresses. It was by providing this information about fuel use, combined with a variety of additional messages or incentives, that led pilots to change how they operated in a way that led to substantial fuel savings…

Continue reading at The Washington Post…

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Areas of Focus: Energy Markets
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