Watch now: Behaviour change and the climate emergency: policy choices to drive social action

“In order to tackle the climate crisis, nothing short of societal transformation is required.”

As part of our Campaign for Social Science’s ongoing project, Election 24: ideas for change based on social science evidence, we recently held a webinar featuring Professor Lorraine Whitmarsh MBE in discussion with Professor Birgitta Gatersleben on how behavioural science can inform efforts to engage the public with climate change, and how policy choices can drive social action to achieve net zero.

In the webinar, run in partnership with the Advancing Capacity for Climate and Environment Social Science (ACCESS) network, Lorraine drew on her research with the Centre for Climate Change and Social Transformations to highlight the public’s attitudes towards climate related policy measures and what more policymakers can do to build further public engagement with such policies.

Lorraine began by referring to the UK’s Net Zero Strategy and its emphasis on technology in current climate and energy policy. But, as Lorraine pointed out, technology alone is not enough and that, in order to reach the net zero targets laid out, one third of the reduction in carbon emissions needed will have to come from consumer behaviour change.

As she said, “The UK Government’s climate advisors, the Committee on Climate Change, tell us that we are not on track nationally, that we are lagging behind where we should be in terms of cutting our carbon emissions. That we’ve made good progress from decarbonising our energy supply, moving away from fossil fuels to more renewable and low carbon sources, but we’ve made very little progress when it comes to actually decarbonising demand. That is how we use energy and resources. And that’s really where the people bit comes in a lot more obviously, so this is why there’s a need for social science to understand that.”

Lorraine then went on to summarise the different approaches to how people can change their behaviour to reduce their carbon footprint, highlighting that the amount people need to change their behaviour and the choices they are making, will depend on their individual circumstances. She used the example of how those living in rural areas would find it more challenging to switch to a car-free lifestyle if the public transport infrastructure in their area is lacking, compared to someone who lived in a well-connected urban area.

Drawing on recent research she has conducted with the Grantham Institute, Lorraine outlined the public’s concerns about climate change and the perceived inaction by governments on the issue. She said, “We polled the UK public, a representative sample, to ask, amongst other things, over the last 12 months do you think the UK Government has done enough to reduce carbon emissions, greenhouse gas emissions, to help prevent climate change? About two thirds say the Government is doing too little and only 6% say they’re doing too much. So there’s a clear sense really that the public is frustrated that Government is not doing more.”

Following on to this, Lorraine drew on further research with Ipsos to show that the public is broadly supportive of many climate-related policies that the Government could implement. She highlighted the importance of this given that all of the policies posed to the public as part of the survey involved some level of behaviour change, with policies on frequent flier levies and paying more for polluting products having majority support. Lorriane attributed the popularity of these policies among all voter groups as down to perceived fairness, with these policies being based on the ‘polluter pays’ principles.

But, as carbon emissions have continued to increase post-covid, there is still a gap between people’s concern about climate change and their behaviour. Lorraine then went on to discuss the different mechanisms to remove barriers to behaviour change, either through influencing people’s decision making by providing them with more information through labelling or information campaigns for example (so called ‘downstream’ approaches), or through influencing the context within which people are acting, for example through economic measures to influence availability of products (‘upstream’ approaches).

Lorraine said, “We can’t rely on information alone to change behaviour. But if what we’re trying to do, going back to the multiple roles that people have, is to get people to support wider social change, and, for example, some of these upstream measures we do need to engage with people, we need these more downstream information provision type approaches to be part of how we engage people to enable support for upstream measures.”

She highlighted how information becomes most effective in changing people’s behaviour when targeting what people care about – for instance, saving time or money, spending more time with their family, contributing to their community. And that, in fact, research has shown that greener choices benefit us in these more immediate ways through improving health and wellbeing, creating green jobs and reducing energy bills.

She said, “Going green is not about sacrifice. In actual fact, far from it. It may even improve people’s quality of life. So, by not thinking about tackling demand and getting people to change their lifestyles and change wider social practices in our climate policies, we are actually missing out on the opportunity to improve wellbeing and quality of life.”

As her presentation drew to an end, Lorraine used a range of examples to illustrate how changing the context within which people are making decisions has led to positive, more climate friendly, behaviour change. These included a Swiss energy company transferring 250,000 of their customers onto a renewable energy tariff by default resulted in 90% of these customers remaining on this tariff four years after its introduction, whereas, when customers had to opt in to get that tariff only 3% did so.

But as she argued, this type of mechanism wasn’t a silver bullet in all contexts and that the timing of intervention also matters as well as the type of intervention that is taking place.

Lorraine ended her presentation on this final thought, “I’ve tried to emphasise how crucial, radical social and behavioural change is for reaching net zero. […] How can we achieve this? We need to focus on those high impact behaviours that I mentioned, like mobility, food, energy and not only on what people can do to directly reduce their carbon emissions, but also to engage people more widely within the workplace, within political and community contexts and so on.”

In the question and answer session that followed, Lorraine answered a range of questions in relation to this topic including how to better engage young people in the decision making process, the perceptions of policymakers themselves on behaviour change in relation to climate action and offered suggestions on what further research is needed in this space.

Watch the recording below to hear more.


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Behaviour change and the climate emergency: policy choices to drive social action is part of Election 24: Ideas for change based on social science evidence, a Campaign for Social Science project which draws on a range of social science research to suggest evidence-based social policy directions ahead of a UK general election in 2024.

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