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Behaviour Change

Briefing paper: The road to net zero – UK public preferences for low-carbon lifestyles

17 September 2022

In a wide-ranging and in-depth analysis of how the UK public views low-carbon lifestyle changes, in the context of reaching net zero, the CAST centre (Climate Change & Social Transformations) reported on a set of ‘deliberative’ workshops (discussion groups) with members of the public.

The workshops covered four topics: ‘how we heat our homes’, ‘the food we eat’, ‘the products we buy’ and ‘how we travel’.

In contrast to the snap polling that is commissioned in the wake of policy announcements, this approach to understanding public opinion provides participants with the chance to discuss, reflect on and consider the nuances of behavioural changes in the context of net zero.

Summaries for each of the four topics above are presented in the report. In contrast to media commentary and political strategy positioning climate behaviours as part of the ‘culture wars’,  one overall conclusion was that personal choices and freedoms are important, but people are willing to engage in low-carbon lifestyles in a way that is proportionate to their own circusmstances:

“Personal choice and freedoms are important aspects underpinning public preferences. In many cases people preferred options that made environmental choices easier rather than restricting choice. Strong negative reactions were only noticeable for strategies which were perceived to take away choice completely, such as meat-free diets, no access to individual car ownership, or living in smaller homes. While these more ‘radical’ strategies do not enjoy high public acceptance, people are willing to consider the principles that underpin them, especially if supported by other actors. For example, most participants were unwilling to consider becoming vegetarian or vegan, but were willing to consider how they could reduce their meat intake. Similarly, living car free was not considered acceptable or feasible by most participants, however they did want to reduce their dependence on cars generally and were open to other modes of transport.”

The latest from the Behaviour Change timeline:

Opinion Insight 5th January 2024

Research paper: Reducing inequality makes behaviour change for net zero more achievable

In an open access research paper in the journal Nature Climate Change, Charlotte Kukowski and Emma Garnett argue that reducing inequality is not simply a positive ‘co-benefit’ of well-designed climate policies (although in a cost of living crisis, the affordability of green policies is a major consideration for voter support).

Instead the authors argue that many of the behavioural changes necessary to reduce emissions from travel or food consumption are simply not possible where income inequalities remain high. The paper uses an example of rural/urban travel costs and rent prices to illustrate how it may be easier for wealthier citizens to make low carbon travel choices:

While London boasts the cheapest bus fares and the most comprehensive public transport network in the UK, it also ranks highest for house prices and rents. Although rent and property prices can be lower in rural areas than in cities, the deregulation and subsequent privatization of the UK bus network in the 1980s have led to fare increases, a marked decrease in ridership, service fragmentation, increased car ownership and dependence, and transport-associated social exclusion, which disproportionately affect poorer citizens in rural communities

The analysis and recommendations for addressing ‘carbon inequality’ offer a different way of thinking about the challenge of population-scale behaviour changes: many policies are not currently viewed as fair by the public in large part because they aren’t currently equally accessible to people across the income spectrum.

The paper concludes that addressing general inequality, in turn makes behaviour change for net zero more feasible.

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