Scaling behaviour change for a 1.5-degree world

caling behaviour change for a 1.5-degree world. Insights from Cambridge Sustainability Commission Paper

Scaling behaviour change for a 1.5-degree world

Last update: 02/03/2023

Behaviour change is key for building a future where everyone can thrive and nature regenerates. But how do we drive and scale it to the extent needed?

A recent report from the UK upper house’s environment and climate change committee highlighted that behavioural change is key for achieving climate, environmental and wider benefits.

The report stated that 32 per cent of emissions reductions up to 2035 require decisions by individuals and households to adopt low-carbon technologies and choose low-carbon products and services, as well as reduce carbon-intensive consumption. To help achieve this, a coordinated approach from the Government was needed, through:

  • Behaviour change policies related to travel, heating, diet and consumption.
  • A positive and clear narrative on how the public can help achieve climate and environmental goals, and lead by example.
  • Sequenced measures such as regulation, taxation and infrastructure development
  • Supporting and celebrating civil society organisations, faith communities and local authorities delivering behavioural change.

The critical role of businesses is highlighted too. They should increase the affordability and availability of greener products and services, and engage customers and employees.

However, an insightful Cambridge Sustainability Commission Paper outlines a bigger, fuller picture of challenges and opportunities for scaling behaviour change for a 1.5-degree world.

Here is a recap.

5 key spheres for action

It counters the dominant focus on individuals and households, in favour of a differentiated, but collective approach with 5 key spheres for action:

  1. ‘Strong’ sustainability pathway, including:
    • A shift from efficient production and consumption to sufficiency (‘avoid-shift-improve’ framework, where avoiding unnecessary resource use comes first and is instructive). This resonates in current regulatory moves and community-based efforts to build a ‘repair’ economy and prolong the life of goods (and challenge practices of planned obsolescence), as well as the idea of a circular economy.

    • Regulation and ‘choice editing’ whereby governments, businesses and those with direct control over production restrict the availability of high-carbon products & services in line with targets and benchmarks.

    • Activating intrinsic (altruistic) values, stressing efficacy and emphasising co-benefits grounded in a ‘new materialism’. This is more likely to spill over positively into other patterns of behaviour than appeals to financial self-interest or social status.

  2. Pursuing just transitions via changes to work, income and infrastructure.

    Supporting workers and easing the changes caused by decarbonization through measures such as social protection, temporary basic income, re-skilling and up-skilling.

    Reallocating revenues from frequent flyer levies on wealthier consumers’ flights to subsidise public transport for poorer consumers.

    Addressing social, employment and welfare provision alongside more traditional techno-environmental measures such as low-cost, electric vehicle provision, home insulation to address energy poverty and reduce emissions.

  3. Rebalancing political institutions where:
    • Incumbent power is rolled back. This involves reducing capital going into politics through controls on party donations, and greater transparency in lobbying and directorships.

    • New regulatory pathways and political spaces are created

    • Representation is enhanced for those most vulnerable to the dual impacts of poverty and climate change, indirect representation for future generations (such as parliamentary ombudspeople) or lowering the voting age to amplify the voice of younger generations.

      This includes social movements that disrupt consumer culture. For example through protests against particular products and business practices, co-production of ‘civil regulation’ of the private sector (through codes of conduct and certification) or building alternatives as ‘prosumers’ get involved in community energy production and local food networks.

      ‘Re-commoning’ is also recommended as a way of socialising control over the provision of key services that have been ceded to the private sector.

  4. Focusing on absolute emissions reductions, especially by high-polluting actors/activities: travel, diet and housing.

  5. Supporting social mobilisation – including social movements, facilitators, influencers, cultural leaders, social guides, intermediaries and institutional entrepreneurs that can provide leadership, build trust, develop visions and add sense.

From ‘Shallow’ to ‘deep’ scaling

The authors call for a move:

  • Away from linear and ‘shallow’ understandings of behaviour change, dominated by traditional behavioural and mainstreaming approaches
  • Towards a ‘deep’, contextualised and dynamic view of scaling as a transformative process of multiple feedbacks and learning loops between individuals and systems.

    This includes nurturing values and culture practices of care and community, whereby human needs can be met in more sustainable and less materialistic ways. These intervention points are connected through reciprocity, so that efforts by individuals, communities and cities are matched by government leadership that opens up space for further bottom-up experimentation and integrates demands from social movements.

    Priming to motivate environmentally conscious behaviour by activating those values at the point of choice is also highlighted as a successful sustainable behaviour intervention. This ties with a proposal for the use of more empowering cues, such as telling a positive story and highlighting the co-benefits of pro-environmental actions – for example, health, wellbeing, community cohesion, as well as citizenship.

Behavioural economics and psychological perspectives

The paper highlights:

  • The high risk of ‘rebound’ effect from nudge efforts and failure to engage with the attitudes, values and beliefs underlying individuals’ motivations for action.

    Example: buying a more fuel-efficient or hybrid car might cause a driver to make longer or more frequent journeys, and even to spend the money saved on energy-intensive goods and services, such as a second car.

  • Instead, values (personal, guiding principles) and identity (how people define themselves) are recommended for public engagement.

  • Communicating the co-benefits of environmental actions can mitigate against ‘negative spillovers’ and ‘moral licensing’, whereby one environmentally ‘virtuous’ action (such as recycling) may be used to justify other unsustainable behaviours (e.g. buying heavily packaged items).

Dimensions of transformation

The dimensions of transformation needed commensurate with ecological carrying capacity include:

73% [absolute] reduction in household energy use

96% reduction in motor vehicle ownership

78% reduction in per capita vehicle kilometres travelled

79% reduction in air kilometres travelled

Although politically contentious, this has led to discussions about ‘fair shares’ or ‘shrink and share’ schemes to reconcile the need to address sustainability alongside current and historical inequalities within and across societies.

Proposals include:
– ‘contraction & convergence’
– sustainable consumption corridors
– carbon allowances and budgets
– carbon fee and dividend
– a Greenhouse Development Rights framework
– ‘doughnut’ economics

These tools set parameters within which economic activity can take place, and tie in with the ‘strong’ sustainable consumption agenda, which calls for changes in absolute reductions in consumption in industrialised countries.

Social norms

We need to tackle the systemic conditions and drivers of demand-related practices, so we can potentially reconfigure systems in a more sustainable way – by creating a counterculture to consumerism (incl. tackling advertising and the media’s role in driving over-consumption).

We need new indicators of progress, focusing on sustainability and wellbeing within planetary limits, eg. Gross National Happiness or the Happy Planet Index.

Behaviour change is fundamental for creating a sustainable (and even better – regenerative) future. However, this has to be a profound change – beyond “nudges” and “tools” that prompt small-scale consumer actions.

It needs to be aligned with people’s values and identities, and address politics, power and social justice. This way it can tackle uneven responsibility and agency for action, within and between societies.

Do you agree? Let me know in the comments below.

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