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Behaviour change: in our hands?

03 November, 2022

Noel Cass

Reading time: 7 minutes

Noel Cass reviews the recent House of Lords Environment and Climate Change Committee report which provides concrete recommendations that are far more radical, and therefore realistic, than anything the government seems to be considering.

In my last blog, I suggested that the House of Lords Environment and Climate Change Committee might be listening. The Committee’s report on the role of ‘behaviour change’ in responding to the climate crisis was published on the 12th of October and takes on board much of the advice of our submission and of other key social science perspectives on demand reduction.

It contains rebukes of the government’s lack of ambition but also concrete recommendations that are far more radical, and therefore realistic, than anything the government seems to be considering.

Principles of the Net Zero Strategy are not being followed

Perhaps the most fundamental contribution of the Committee’s report is to point out that the stated ‘principles’ of the Net Zero Strategy are not being followed. They state that:

the Government has failed to … motivate and build public acceptability for major changes and to present a clear vision of how we will get to net zero and what the role of people and business will be.

They add that they have also not consistently applied “the remaining four principles—of sending clear regulatory signals, making the green choice the easiest, making the green choice affordable and empowering people and businesses to make their own choice”. This means that viewing behaviour change as a matter of consumer choice in markets is essentially a ‘do nothing/Business As Usual’ approach: “The one element of consistency … the principle of going with the grain of consumer choice – ignores the role that many government levers like regulation and taxation play in shaping markets and influencing social norms.”

This reflects much of the evidence provided to the Committee that suggested ‘choice editing’ or ‘upstream’ interventions “including regulation, taxation and development of infrastructure, appropriately sequenced, are key”. Furthermore, they correctly identify that that undermining of “individuals’ willingness and ability to take action” is based on policy taboos (such as those over restricting car use and flying): “the Government’s reticence to address key areas … is largely a result of a reluctance to be perceived as reducing freedom of choice”. The evidence they received stressed that, contrary to this squeamishness, regulation has been by far the most effective way to achieve behaviour change in the past. In other words, the Committee is strongly recommending that the government needs to actually use the tools of government to address climate change.

Structural approaches to behaviour change are needed

Before getting into policy recommendations the report first delves into the theory of ‘behaviour change’ itself. It urges a significant shift of theoretical and research focus from the long-dominant individualist ‘psychological’ model of behaviour (focussing on knowledge, values and emotions) to a stress on ‘structural’ factors including the physical environment, and social factors such as norms, group identity and community solidarity. It still stresses that “practical factors were the most commonly mentioned including price, ease and functionality”, meaning that the affordability of lower-carbon options is a key influence, requiring financial support in some cases. It was refreshing to see a policy-facing report engage with the implications of different theoretical approaches, given that the dominance of psychological and economic approaches to behaviour and its change can be argued to lie behind the reliance on so-far largely ineffectual ‘smarter choices’ and information based approaches to behaviour change.

What does this mean in terms of practical policy recommendations? The report identifies that behaviour change in personal travel, food and household energy use could have the largest impact. The following summarises some of the key recommendations that specifically cited our CREDS submission, based on the work of the High Energy Consumers project, and the oral evidence of Professor Jillian Anable. There is more in the report, particularly on diet but also on heating, that is not represented here. Home heating, rightfully, is considered more as a matter of systemic or infrastructural change than behaviour change, per se.

Regulation is seen as effective and fair

In terms of the general type of policy required, as suggested above, the report reflected our arguments that regulation is seen as “a highly effective tool for behaviour change by consumers and industry and is often seen by the public as fairer and more acceptable than economic interventions”, (a point ever more salient with rising costs of energy and living) because

Nudges alone would be inadequate to achieve the scale of change required.

Given that “higher income households ‘contribute most in absolute terms to increases in frequent flying’”, the report firmly recommended frequent flier levies, criticising the Government’s “failure to acknowledge the need for a reduction in long-haul flights … given the meaningful contribution this could make to emissions reductions as well as the public’s support for a fair measure that would help to secure this”. It stressed that these would “only affect the minority of the population who take flights much more often than the average individual or family.”

In the area of car driving, at the top level the committee supported Prof Anable’s call for “an overall car traffic reduction target—similar to that adopted by the Scottish Government of a 20 per cent reduction by 2030—and to develop a delivery plan against this.” The committee also, surprisingly, identified “the proportion of advertising devoted to SUVs (Sports Utility Vehicles)” as an issue in normalising high impact behaviours, calling for “measures to regulate advertising of high-carbon and environmentally damaging products”. This would target SUVs undoing efficiency gains, even if they are electrified. It was also suggested that options for challenging climate change mis- and dis-information on social media should be explored.

More prosaically, the report mirrored calls to dissuade private car use through two main approaches. Firstly through “reduced speed limits, school streets, low traffic neighbourhoods and other measures which prioritise access for other road users over private cars” – measures which require devolving more power to local authorities. Secondly, through “pricing, congestion charging, low emission zones, higher parking costs, workplace parking levies and other charges”, which should raise revenue for “active travel infrastructure and public transport”.  They also supported such investment being funded “through a reprioritisation of funding away from large road and major infrastructure projects”.

Target high energy use

This summary obviously cherry-picks recommendations that reflect our advice and our specific interests in the Institute for Transport Studies at Leeds. In general, the report represented a major challenge to the Government’s general direction on climate, in direct grappling with a number of major taboos that have stymied any progress, particularly in tackling transport emissions:

  • targeting the emissions of the rich;
  • targeting car use;
  • targeting the excessive flights of the rich; and
  • challenging a fixation on freedom of consumer choice head-on.

Instead of the freedom represented by the size of one’s bank account or disposable income, the report implicitly suggested that fairness should be a central concern of climate policy, again quoting Jillian Anable in suggesting that:

Campaigns about behaviour change need to be underpinned by fairness, ensuring ‘people believe that everybody will be treated fairly, everybody will have to do their bit and no one will be able to get away with it’ … Prof Anable told us deliberative approaches are effective because they allow people to express frustrations about perceived unfairness, to get a conversation going about these frustrations and then have constructive conversations about potential policy options.

These recommendations go some way towards untangling what ‘behaviour change’ really means in a society where households are tied into infrastructures of high energy demand (such as gas central heating and road systems dominated by cars), and where the information environment of competitive capitalism is geared to maintaining high levels of consumption. They also place the ball firmly in the government’s court as the organisation with the most agency over all these areas where energy demand is created: infrastructures, markets, and daily routines and practices.

The question is whether the government is capable of hearing sense. For a less edifying experience, head to the last section of the report, where Baron Lilley (who rejected the Committee’s report) outlines the sort of ‘climate action rejecting’ arguments that were previously found on the extreme right, market fundamentalist wing of the Conservative Party, but which in recent times have been  increasingly found near its centre and in cabinet.

Banner photo credit: Jon Tyson on Unsplash