Our latest CAST report, commissioned by the Climate Change Committee (CCC), reveals that substantial behaviour change is required across society to reach the UK’s ambitious net-zero 2050 target, with 60% of reductions needing to come from consumers.
In our latest CAST report: ‘The Implications of Behavioural Science for Effective Climate Policy’, commissioned by the Climate Change Committee (CCC), we provided key recommendations aimed at the policy-makers and businesses on how to deliver effective climate policy and change consumer behaviour in eight essential areas.
These areas included policy acceptability, dietary change, reducing material consumption, reducing aviation-based emissions, adapting to the effects of climate change, net-zero skills, encouraging businesses to be more sustainable, and land use and farming.
In this blog, we summarise our key recommendations illustrated with some examples of what these changes might look like in practice and what will be required from different groups across society to reach the UK’s net-zero 2050 target and adaptation goals.
It will take more than targeting individual decision-making to achieve the UK’s net-zero goals
From the evidence we reviewed, it’s clear that the large scale of behaviour change needed to deliver the UK’s climate mitigation and adaptation goals requires government intervention, such as regulation and incentives, that remove barriers, as well providing information and ‘nudging’ to change an individual’s decision-making.
A multi-faceted approach is required from individuals, governments, policy and business to deliver the behaviour change necessary to achieve the UK’s net zero goals. If behaviour change strategy is primarily focused on individual choice and decision-making, without removing structural and social barriers, then only some of the population will be able to change their behaviour. This would make the large-scale behaviour change required to deliver the UK’s net-zero target unachievable.
It could also increase inequality because only some of the population would change their behaviour, especially if the likelihood of behaviour change is associated with income or identity. For example, an intervention targeted at changing individual attitudes related to recycling will only be successful if most people can easily access recycling facilities.
A recent report on pro-environmental behaviour change by the CCC, which we advised on, came to a similar conclusion about government intervention being essential to behaviour change, highlighting that their approach is “seriously inadequate” and that “a coherent public engagement strategy on climate action is long overdue”.
Based on the evidence, we proposed several overarching principles for using behavioural science in climate policy which included identifying behavioural targets, identifying and tailoring interventions, combining and sequencing interventions, tailoring to different populations, getting the timing right, engaging the public and improving the evidence base and evaluating policies.
Overall key report findings
Information is important in some circumstances
When it comes to changing an individual’s behaviour, information is important in some circumstances. However, this doesn’t mean strategies targeting individuals, such as information campaigns, aren’t important for mass behaviour change to achieve the net-zero goal. There are many areas where the report has identified that public knowledge and awareness are low. For example, adaptation behaviours related to a changing climate such as property flood-proofing and cooling strategies are not widespread and there is not much public knowledge. Also, information provision is important for young people choosing a green career and can provide a rationale for wider policy interventions.
Fairness and transparency are important for policy acceptability
The report suggests that climate policies which are perceived to be fair are more likely to be acceptable to the public. This may include:
- Ensuring disadvantaged people are protected
- Ensuring benefits and costs are distributed based on needs and responsibility
- Redistributing revenue into environmental initiatives such as renewable energy
- Investing in infrastructure such as public transportation initiatives
In addition to fairness, the public is more likely to accept climate policies when sufficient, open, and transparent information about the policy is provided by trusted leaders and organisations. This includes communicating the fairness, effectiveness, and any risks associated with a policy. Also, where policies are seen as having allowed autonomous decision-making, they may receive more support than those perceived as coercive.
Examples of behaviour change (based on our recommendations)
In the report, we provided specific recommendations in eight behavioural areas based on a variety of different reports from the academic government, business and third sector, as well as general principles for applying behavioural insights in climate policy. Below, we explain some examples of how this might look in practice within diet change and aviation.
Our research indicates that the public largely support a reduction in the consumption of red meat and dairy, with many already reducing their consumption of beef, pork and dairy products. Geographical and socioeconomic barriers in access to healthy and sustainable foods do however prevent some consumers from making sustainable food choices. Framing communication about meat and dairy consumption around social norms and psychological factors such as identity, emotions and attitudes can change consumer behaviour to an extent.
But taking this informational approach alone can lead to greater inequality as only part of the population would change their behaviour as a result. An alternative that would achieve wider population change would be altering the food environment, for example by taxing high-carbon foods, labelling, subsidising meat-free options, and increasing plant-based options.
Many of those who fly are reluctant to reduce their air travel because of its associations with pleasure, freedom, and social status (although recent studies suggest social norms around flying may be shifting). Therefore, voluntary change in flight behaviour is therefore unlikely. People also tend to place responsibility on governments and industry to reduce emissions from aviation but currently flying is promoted by industry, government, and cultural signals for example from leaders and celebrities.
Strategies targeting individuals, such as increasing climate awareness or concern don’t typically result in behaviour change when it comes to air travel. However, a Frequent Flyer Levy or Frequent Air Miles Tax have the potential to be effective in reducing aviation demand and to be perceived as fair by the public.
Communicating the co-benefits can support behaviour change
Climate concern is generally high, with around 46% of people ‘very or extremely worried’ about climate change, but this is insufficient alone to motivate people to change their behaviour. Communicating the wider ‘co-benefits’ of climate policies such as safety, health, or job creation can increase behaviour change.
Our CAST Director Professor Lorraine Whitmarsh MBE, co-author of the report, shares her thoughts on the findings:
“Our review provides crucial insights on how to use behavioural science to improve climate policy, as well as highlighting a number of evidence gaps. We show that public engagement is essential for effective policy design and delivery, and that good behavioural interventions remove cost, convenience, social and informational barriers to behaviour change. These insights will help the Climate Change Committee advise the UK government on delivering ambitious and effective climate action”.