Kick starting a sustainability initiative can sometimes involve pushback and skepticism, especially when it comes to those coughing up the funds for it. We often find ourselves involved in debates around best way to incentivize action; is it best to use a carrot or a stick? Is it best to convince people of the need for action out of fear or with the possibility of reward?

Not long ago, Chinese authorities went the “stick” route in an incentive that’s sure to instill some fear: the death penalty is now a viable punishment for serious cases of pollution in China. This controversial new law appears to be the government’s response to public outcry and unrest over blatant violation of pollution limits by several Chinese refineries and other companies.

Controversy aside, China’s environment is in great danger. And, unfortunately for the rest of the world, pollution does not stay within the confines of the country where it was generated. We will all suffer the ramifications of China’s polluters. According to an article on, the particulate levels in major Chinese cities are up to seven times that of the World Health Organization’s standard, and twice the more relaxed limit set by Chinese authorities. Additionally, one million Chinese citizens die prematurely each year due to air pollution. The dissatisfaction among the Chinese people is clearly justified, and their government certainly seems to have heard them. But wow, the death penalty? That’s one serious stick.

In the United States, penalties for pollution are comparatively lax! Americans, in general, prefer the “carrot” approach: financial incentives vs. regulation as a means to changing behavior, especially in the private sector. One such carrot offered in the U.S. are tax deductions under Section 179D of the Energy Policy Act of 2005 for energy conservation in new construction or renovation projects. Owners who have been designed and constructed projects for energy reduction impacts in three categories – the heating and cooling system, lighting, and the building envelope – can take advantage of tax deductions of up to $1.80 per square foot. Saving green to go green sure sounds good to us.

Truth is, when it comes to pursuing sustainability, there are always parties who need to be convinced of its necessity or urgency. Choosing an incentive to instill fear of punishment, like China’s extreme death penalty solution, can be effective, but often leaves people with a bad taste in their mouths (or maybe dead). Motivating people to choose sustainability based on getting a reward at least sets a more positive tone. At Sustrana, we have plenty of suggestions regarding incentives to help you fund and launch your sustainability initiative. Our free Sustrana Perspective piece, Fueling Your Sustainability Program: Innovative Strategies for Project Funding is a great place to start!