Our best behaviour?

Despite emerging narratives to the contrary, behaviour change has a significant role to play in reaching net zero, reports David Burrows

How hard will it be to reach net-zero? Given that it’s a target often pinned to the year 2050, the short answer is that we don’t know. However, of late, a narrative has been emerging that it will involve minimal discomfort for the UK public.

Take the opinion in the Financial Times recently which noted that the phase-out of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) was pretty seamless: we still have fridges, air conditioners and spray cans, after all. “There is no consumer convenience we had to give up to save the ozone layer,” the commentator wrote.

The UK government is anxious to avoid piling pressure on the public. “We will, where possible, look for solutions that do not require excessively drastic behavioural change,” said Sarah Munby, permanent secretary at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, when quizzed by the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee on the government’s net-zero plan.

To date, much of the success in reducing UK emissions has been invisible to the public – consider, for example, that low-carbon power now provides more than 50% of the country’s electricity. However, the reality is that behaviour change is the elephant in the room – and it could be larger than we expected.

High-impact change

“I think what we are seeing from our governments is a reluctance to really grapple with behaviour change,” says Joanna Trewern, behaviour change specialist at WWF-UK.

The Committee on Climate Change (CCC) has calculated that 43% of the cuts on its route to net-zero require a combination of low-carbon technologies and behaviour change – for example driving electric cars, and installing heat pumps rather than gas boilers (Figure 1,). Another 16% will come from “largely societal or behaviour changes” such as healthier diets, fewer flights and choosing products that last longer. This will require “suitable policy leadership”.

Professor Lorraine Whitmarsh, an environmental psychologist at the University of Bath, thinks attributing 59% to behaviour change is “relatively conservative” given that the committee only defines ‘behaviour change’ in terms of ‘consumer behaviour change’. “Even if you look at technological change alone, you’re still going to have some people making some decisions about those technologies, and that’s a professional behaviour change.”

Whitmarsh says we should expect “pretty fundamental changes to society that go way beyond just buying some green products”. She isn’t alone. A report for the CCC by Imperial College London in October 2019 (Behaviour change, public engagement and Net Zerobit.ly/CCC_BehaviourChange) suggests “breaking” with previous messaging to households, which focuses on small and easy changes. Instead, “high-impact shifts in consumer behaviours and choices are needed that are consistent with the scale of the climate challenge”.

Public perceptions

That won’t sit easily with politicians or many businesses – not least because for high-income European countries such as the UK, the largest contributions to household consumption footprints come from cars, planes, heating and animal-based foods such as meat and dairy. Are governments going to ask us to take fewer flights or hold off on the burgers for this summer’s barbecues? Probably not.

In Scotland, a nation that prides itself on stealing a march on Westminster’s green ambitions, recent data on emissions for 2019 showing that for agriculture and international aviation and shipping, there was “essentially no change in emissions”. Emissions from residential properties fell slightly. The overall 55% reduction target was missed.

The results came in the same month that the Scottish government launched a new campaign, ‘Let’s do net-zero’. Phase one is focused on educating the public about the climate emergency – a task that might appear relatively easy, given heightened awareness of environmental issues (think Greta Thunberg, Extinction Rebellion and now the ‘green recovery’). A recent poll by Ipsos Mori, however, suggests otherwise.

The Ipsos Perils of Perception: climate change study (bit.ly/PoP_Climate) published in April assessed how people in 30 markets around the world perceive environmental action. Ipsos MORI asked which actions delivered the most greenhouse gas reductions in richer countries; none of the top three answers given were among the top three most effective actions (Figure 2). ‘Recycling as much as possible’, which delivers just 0.2 tonnes of emissions savings per person per year, came out on top. Replacing incandescent bulbs is another easy option (especially in countries where they are being phased out), but the savings are a mere 0.1 tonnes per person per year.

Most of the more uncomfortable changes fell further down the list of answers – things such as avoiding one long-distance flight a year, or eating a plant-based diet. Is this because people don’t know the right answers, or because they don’t want to know? “I think it is a combination of both,” says Pendragon Stuart, associate director at insights consultancy Globescan.

The 2020 Globescan Healthy and Sustainable Living report – based on online surveying of 27,000 people in 27 countries – showed that 50% of people want to change their lifestyle to help protect the planet, but only 25% have done so. There is a clear correlation between ‘easy to do’ and ‘interested in’, Stuart explains.

“What we are seeing is a reluctance to really grapple with behaviour change”

According to Globescan, changes to diets or travel are categorised as ‘low interest, high difficulty’, while reducing waste and saving energy are ‘high interest, low difficulty’. There is an argument, therefore, for targeting quick wins. Buying renewable energy was the second most common answer in the Ipsos MORI poll, for example, and saved a decent 1.5 tonnes of emissions per person per year. “It is an issue that people don’t realise the power of switching to renewable energy, and I think we do need more ‘literacy’ in this area,” says Stuart.

Changing tactics

Timing is critical. Researchers such as Whitmarsh are increasingly recognising the importance not only of how to intervene, but also when. She cites a study in Switzerland, published in Nature Human Behaviour (bit.ly/GreenEnergyDefaults), which showed that presenting renewable energy as the standard option to existing customers led to around 80% sticking with the greener default.

The UK government has successfully used this tactic with organ donation, but “we haven’t really seen that so much when it comes to the environment”, says WWF’s Trewern. Where it gets complicated is trying to work out who should be giving that information and when. The ‘when’ is often easier than the ‘who’, she suggests.

Food businesses are, for example, looking at ways to encourage people to buy healthier, more sustainable products (recent calculations published in Nature Food show that food is responsible for 34% of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions – bit.ly/Food_Emissions). Research by Asda last year showed that 64% of shoppers are “willing to change the way I shop to be more environmentally friendly”, but just 16% are making observable changes to what they buy, says Susan Thomas, the supermarket’s senior director, sustainable commercial activities.

Thomas is currently adopting a pragmatic approach to helping those who are open to change. The focus is on actions that save time and money, such as food waste – “that’s rocketed up the list of things our customers want to do something about” – and bringing your own bags. From there, it is possible to move on to refillable packaging (Asda has just extended refill zones to four more stores) and perhaps even climate labels (upon agreement over consistent data and presentation).

There is a need to make things as easy as possible in a bid to quicken the pace without losing people along the way. “We do need to make it cheaper, easier, more attractive, more socially normal, to do the things that we want people to do,” says Whitmarsh. “We need the public to be on board with the level of change required.”

So, too, politicians. In April, in an interview with the Financial Times, France’s environment minister Barbara Pompili said relying on new technologies to meet the Paris Agreement was all well and good, but in Europe, countries had an “extra ingredient […] we’re also looking at our ways of life”.

Is now, amid a global pandemic, the right time to push people? Net Zero after Covid (bit.ly/CCC_CovidZero), a report by CCC behavioural science specialist professor Nick Chater of the University of Warwick, notes that “we are often (although not always) far more adaptable than we think” – and the past 12 months has certainly proved as much.

The changes required to meet net zero will hopefully be more gradual than what we have experienced this past year, provided we start now. However, to think they will be less radical is folly. Prepare for cutting carbon to get a bit more uncomfortable.


David Burrows is a freelance writer and researcher.

Image credit | GettyImages

David Burrows is a freelance writer and researcher (specialising in food, sustainability and packaging/resource use).
Email: [email protected] Twitter: @envirobuzz

Back to Top