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Behaviour Change

Comment: Is ‘behaviour change’ a contentious topic or an essential part of net zero?

30 November 2023

Understanding the sometimes turbulent relationship between behaviour change, policy making and campaigning on climate change and net zero.

As countless analyses have shown, individual behaviours matter for reducing carbon emissions.

For those with high carbon footprints – which are driven by wealth and disposable income – reducing per capita emissions from lifestyle choices is an essential part of the low-carbon transition. The carbon footprints of the top 10%, 5% and especially 1% of earners matter in-and-of themselves.

But perhaps because of the skewed distribution of consumption emissions, the idea of individuals making choices to adjust or moderate their own behaviours remains controversial. Governments are instinctively nervous about being accused of over-reach, or of covertly attempting to influence people’s decisions.

Some of the earliest campaigns to raise awareness of climate change with the public focused on ‘simple and painless’ steps that people could take, but in equating these changes with the magnitude of the challenge of climate change, arguably trivialised the nature of the challenge. At the same time, there is evidence of oil and gas companies using the concept of individual carbon footprints to distract attention from the systemic causes of climate change – i.e. their extraction of fossil fuels in the first place.

Systemic changes and behavioural changes are not mutually exclusive – and can instead be considered ‘two sides of the same coin’. But there is a strong critique of focusing on individual carbon footprints from within the climate movement – arguing that the focus should be kept on the root causes of the problem (i.e. fossil fuels, not the decisions people make in their own lives).

People are ‘agents of change’ across the breadth of their lives: as peers, colleagues, decision makers and voters. Crucially, emissions reductions from those with the freedom and means to adjust their lifestyles send a powerful social signal that change is possible and responsibility will be fairly shared.

Much of the path to net zero now involves securing the buy-in of the general public, including willingness to change behaviours. Across diet, travel and energy use, there are differing levels of support for behavioural change.

Although food choices are closely linked to people’s identities, and there have been attempts to cultivate ‘culture war’ debates around the prospect of taxation on meat, in fact there is generally more support than opposition for shifting diets among the UK population.

For those who fly regularly, though, there is less evidence that habits or attitudes are shifting. So the idea of ‘behaviour change’ (like the wider net zero conversation) is something that is grounded in specific situations and conditions.

What matters is not only the willingness people indicate to change their own behaviours but also their capacity/ability to make changes (many people do not need to reduce the amount they fly, for example, because they already fly infrequently) and the factors that sit behind individual behaviour choices: people’s values, their sense of identity and the social cues they receive from friends and peers around them.

Resources like Britain Talks Climate (based on the varying ‘core beliefs’ that different ‘Britain’s Choice’ audience segments hold) provide the sort of nuanced guidance required for behavioural campaigns to land effectively: there is no one-size-fits-all message on shifting behaviours on the path to net zero.

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.

Climate Barometer Tracker 30th November 2023

Tracker data: What actions are the public and MPs taking to address climate change?

The latest Climate Barometer tracker data compares the actions that the public and MPs say they are taking to address climate change in their personal lives.

The most frequent behaviours include: Recycling and reducing plastic use, reducing electricity use, and buying local foods and reducing food waste

The least frequent behaviours include: becoming vegan, installing heat pumps, carbon offsetting when flying, and installing solar panels

MPs are more likely to take part in actions like walking/cycling or taking public transport to work, driving an electric vehicle, as well as buying local foods and choosing environmentally friendly brands (likely due to MPs being part of a subset of the population who are wealthier). 

There’s a similar trend for household behaviours, where MPs are more likely to have improved their home insulation, and switched to renewable energy. However, this does not carry through to all areas: MPs have not installed solar panels or a heat pump in greater numbers than the public. MPs are understandably more likely to have contacted MPs about climate change than the public. 

Around 17% of both MPs and the public say they have taken none of these actions for environmental reasons.

View Behaviour Change timeline now

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