Whether Boston will become the greenest city in America hinges partly on how long Nathan Gottier and Jess Gillane can go meatless on Mondays.
Four months ago, the couple signed a pledge — he to unplug electronics at night and she to cook tofu once a week — as part of an ambitious city-led experiment that seeks to motivate residents to change their daily habits enough to cut greenhouse gas emissions 7 percent by 2020.
Called Greenovate Boston , the six-month-old campaign refuses to use gloomy projections of global warming catastrophe to motivate residents to adopt greener behavior. Instead, it is using social science, statistics, and, most of all, small steps, to engage people to take a personal stake in creating a more sustainable city. As the program begins to gain followers, however, a question looms large: Will people keep it up long enough to make a difference?
“If someone told me I had to unplug everything I have and eat tofu every day, that would be hard,’’ said Gottier, a Northeastern University senior studying civil engineering. “But what made this work for me so far is it’s a small commitment — I don’t have to change my entire lifestyle.”
As an international treaty and US legislation to lower heat-trapping emissions have stalled, more emphasis is being placed on states, communities, and individuals to help slow climate change. Boston has a goal of reducing emissions 25 percent below 2005 levels by 2020, and 80 percent by 2050.
The city has met with some success so far, from launching the popular Hubway bike-
sharing program to offering free energy audits for landlords, homeowners, and renters.
Emissions have already dropped by more than 11 percent from the 2005 base line, in part because of energy efficiency improvements and more reliance on natural gas, which emits fewer greenhouse gases when burned than coal and oil. In September, the city was named the country’s most energy efficient by the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy.
Now comes the harder part. The city needs enormous buy-in, not only to get to the 2020 goal, but to spark a “wholesale cultural shift” to reach the longer-term 80 percent goal, said Benita Hussain, policy and communications adviser for Greenovate.
To do so, the program must overcome an age-old problem anyone who has tried to take up exercise knows: New habits are hard to sustain.
Becoming greener is especially hard, sociologists say, because it involves a series of behaviors, each with its own set of obstacles. If you take a bike to work, you may need to build in more time in the morning or figure out how to take a shower at work. Hanging laundry out to dry in the sun will not work in the rain or if you need clean clothes quickly.
In addition, many people do not see immediate or tangible benefits to personally combating climate change. The financial rewards are often small, and no one can see the reduction in greenhouse gases.
“So you have to translate the science talk to sidewalk talk,’’ Mayor Thomas Menino said in an interview.
Boston is taking a page from the psychology books to get people on board. First, the city wants people such as Gottier to commit to small changes, with the expectation that they will commit to larger, more meaningful ones later. Research about this “foot-in-the-door” approach shows that once people make a small choice or stand, they are more likely to behave consistently with that commitment and improve upon it.
“They say, ‘I must have said yes [initially] because I believe in the cause.’ It’s this whole perception of being a type of person,’’ said Elke Weber, codirector of the Center for the Decision Sciences at Columbia Business School, who studies why people make environmentally sensitive choices.
As enough people adopt behaviors, she said, others begin to imitate them. “You can look at it as peer pressure, but you can also say, ‘I am going to do what the majority is doing because it can’t be all bad.’ ”
Greenovate workers set out tables at Circle The City, free outdoor community events, asking passersby if they would sign a pledge to make a small commitment to the environment, such as carpooling once a week or signing up for Hubway. Greenovate followed up with text messages four weeks after the pledge and then two weeks after that, asking how people had fared. So far, 400 people have signed up, and most of them say they have stuck to their pledge.
The overall goals are lofty: engage all Bostonians in at least one green behavioral change. The 7 percent cut in emissions will not be reached merely by people deciding to ride bikes, unplug electronics, or eat vegetarian on Mondays; giving up red meat one day a week is roughly equivalent to using a gallon less of gas or cutting out two short car trips.
But these small changes are designed to help alongside higher-impact reductions, such as weatherizing entire apartment buildings.
The multiyear Greenovate campaign is privately funded by the Barr Foundation and the Green Ribbon Commission, a group of business, institutional, and civic leaders working to fight climate change.
The city also launched a composting program at three farmers’ markets this past summer. Over 600 people dropped off 6,000 pounds of garbage, which was delivered to a farm in Saugus. The program was so popular that the city wants to expand it to winter farmers’ markets.
An “adopt-a-tree” program was launched two weeks ago to foster a sense of ownership and attachment to the city. About 60 people have signed up to water and care for young trees that the Parks Department plants on streets.
The city is hopeful that more people will sign up for all the programs and sustain their commitment.
Gottier, too, is hopeful.
He does sometimes forget to unplug computers at night. But Gillane, his girlfriend, reminds him.
And he is starting to get roommates to unplug as well.
“It helps when you’re not doing it by yourself,’’ said Gottier.