Nudging us away from climate change: Using behavioural science to help reduce emissions

With Renee Jaine and Andrew Horwood

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Think of climate change and you probably picture polar bears on melting ice caps, rising sea levels, and extreme weather events like drought and storms. But climate change is also a perfect storm when it comes to our human psychology. That means if we want meaningful action on climate change, we need to see it as a psychological and behavioural challenge, not just a technological or political one.

The psychology of climate change

Advocates for climate change action often think they just need to convince people it’s happening, and that this can be done by providing more facts and figures. But research out of Yale shows that people can understand the science but still not want to respond to climate change, if this could drive a wedge between them and their cultural group.

In behavioural science terms, this research demonstrates that climate change isn’t just a debate that calls for more facts and information to feed ‘System 2’ thinking – that is, slow, conscious and deliberate reasoning. It’s also a challenge in which our thinking is dominated by predictable mental biases and fast, automatic responses – ‘System 1’ thinking.

Here are a few of the psychological challenges on the table:

  • It’s the kind of risk we aren’t used to worrying about. It’s gradual and creeping, rather than sudden – and it seems to be happening somewhere else, to other people.

  • The behaviours we want aren’t yet established as strong social norms. For example, we still look enviously at someone setting off on a round-the-world trip, rather than judging them for their carbon emissions.

  • We see any behavioural switch to do with climate change as a loss. For instance, we tend to focus on the lost convenience of car travel, rather than the benefit of lower emissions that come from catching the train.

  • We get very little feedback on our behaviour. This means we’re unaware of how our actions contribute to emissions, which is something of an anomaly in an age where we increasingly quantify other aspects of our lives (dollars spent, minutes in front of screens, steps walked or run, etc).

Fortunately for us and for the planet, it’s possible to design behaviour-change interventions with human psychology in mind.

Behavioural science can help overcome these barriers

In this article we discuss three behavioural changes that would help the climate, along with some behaviourally informed interventions to shift the dial:

  • Changing what we eat – by tapping into social norms and substitution

  • Changing how we travel – by making low-carbon options more attractive

  • Changing how we consume energy – using the power of feedback.

Changing what we eat

There are a number of ways to reduce the greenhouse gas (GHG) footprint of our meals.

It’s an inconvenient truth for a nation with steak and cheese pies entrenched in its DNA, but the IPCC – the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – says we need to eat less meat, cheese and butter. According to Science, farmed animal products contribute 18% of the world’s calories but 58% of agriculture’s greenhouse gas emissions.

However, the IPCC says we also need to eat more locally sourced, seasonal food, and throw less food away. For example, fruit imported to New Zealand from the tropics may carry significant carbon miles. Knowing how and where your food is produced is important, as the same food can have hugely different environmental effects. For example, research on GHG emissions from beef production found they range from a very high 15 kg per serve to less than 5 kg, depending on where and how it was produced.

For the record, New Zealand farms are in fact highly efficient and productive. According to MPI, our total agricultural emissions have grown by 15% since 1990, but would have increased by more than 40% but for the efforts of our farmers.

Red meat is often singled out in the media, but a chocolate bar from a deforested rainforest has a higher carbon footprint than a low-impact serving of beef. Likewise, high-impact coffee can be worse than low-impact cheese. But how can consumers be helped to consider the carbon footprint of their meals?

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(Photo by Anna Pelzer on Unsplash)

Harnessing social norms and substitution

The adoption of low-carbon diets could be accelerated through leveraging social norms – these are behaviours that ‘everyone’ exhibits and expects everyone else to exhibit. The power to conform is significant, drawing on our fear of exclusion.

In New Zealand, eating animal products is generally seen as ‘normal’, but red meat consumption has in fact been declining here – by 58% in the 10 years to 2018. So eating less red meat is becoming more common, but it hasn’t yet been promoted as a social norm. If more noise were made about our lower red meat consumption, it would help normalise more plant-based diets.

Research also shows it’s easier to substitute one product or habit for another, rather than going cold turkey. It’s why sales of alcohol-free beer are tracking steadily upwards, and why less cigarette smoking frequently goes with more vaping.

Imported foods can be substituted with similar local foods. Those wanting to cut their high-impact meat intake might find it easier to substitute a comparable product like low-impact meat, plant-based protein or, one day, lab-grown meat. All these advances should help to smooth our collective transition to a lower-carbon diet.

Changing how we travel

Kiwis love petrol-fuelled cars, and it’s not good for the planet. Our collective vehicle emissions increased 82% between 1990 and 2016, and road vehicles account for over a third of our CO2 emissions (Statistics NZ).

On the bright side, there’s significant potential to reduce our carbon footprint by increasing our uptake of public transport, electric vehicles, and active transport options such as walking and cycling.

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(Photo by Zachary Staines on Unsplash)

Ensuring low-carbon options are attractive

Behavioural scientists know that if you want people to do something, you need to make it attractive, and not just rely on fear of the negative.

As explained by sustainability-focused change agency Futerra – and also Kramer from Seinfeld – you need to sell the ‘sizzle’, not the sausage. So instead of describing the hellish world that unchecked climate change will entail (the sausage), we need to ‘describe a desirable and descriptive mental picture of a low carbon future. This captures the imagination and … wins us the right to hold people’s attention long enough to get to the call for action.’

The same needs to be done for green transport – ensuring that low-carbon options are genuinely appealing. A number of strategies have been tried successfully overseas, and these are just the tip of the (non-melting) iceberg:

  • Game-ifying public transport – In Singapore, where behavioural insights are being used to shape public policy, the government launched the Travel Smart programme to promote public transport and off-peak travel. As a report from Alta explains, passengers earn reward points each time they travel on the train, and can earn extra points if they travel off-peak. The points are redeemable for money or for entry into a lottery. New Zealand could explore different ways to ‘game-ify’ public transport and reward passengers for making desirable travel choices.

  • Test-drive experiences to increase EV conversionResearch has shown that barriers to EV purchase can be overcome by giving people a test-drive. That is why EECA, through the Better New Zealand Trust, supported more than 1,200 EV test drives or ride experiences at community events around New Zealand in 2017/18.

  • Personalised alternatives to private car use – Companies like Microsoft in the US are using a multi-pronged approach to behaviour change, including providing preferred spaces for bikes and carpoolers, a ‘vanpool’ that shuttles employees to and from the work campus, and real-time ride matching, and also by enabling remote working among employees. New Zealand could pilot specific, behaviourally informed interventions that large organisations could use to reduce their private vehicle use.

  • Targeting people at the right timeLongitudinal research of nearly 20,000 UK residents has shown that eco-minded people are more likely to shift from driving to other modes of transport when they’ve recently moved house. That’s because it’s easier to establish a virtuous new habit when all your routines are up in the air. New Zealand could take advantage of this, by targeting ‘mode shift’ communications at people who have recently moved house.

Changing how we consume energy

Around 85% of New Zealand’s electricity currently comes from renewable sources. If we want to eliminate non-renewable generation from our national footprint altogether, then we either need to increase renewable generation by 15%, or find ways to cut our energy usage – or some hybrid of the two strategies.

Andy Horwood has already written about the value of local generation of renewable energy, so here we’re going to talk about how to drive energy savings at the household level.

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(Photo by Eric Anada from Pexels)

Behavioural scientists know that humans respond to real-time feedback. Information can be a surprisingly useful motivator, and it’s often more cost-effective for consumers than a tax – especially on a non-luxury good like electricity.

Think about those flashing road signs that tell you how fast you are driving. The timely feedback prompts drivers to cut their driving speeds by 10–20% on average, and the effect is strong over time according to researchers.

So how could we leverage the power of feedback to encourage reduced energy and electricity use?

Using real-time feedback to reduce energy use

With electricity, real-time usage information could be tracked through a smart meter. Three-quarters (72%) of Kiwis already have these – the highest uptake rate in the world, if you exclude countries where they’re compulsory. But at present, the main benefit of smart meters is accurate billing information, not lower energy consumption – although the first may lead to the second. In order to drive meaningful behaviour change, households need their energy use to be visible and top of mind.

This could be achieved through ‘in-home display’ functionality, or ‘home area network’ interfaces that provide real-time data to customers’ smart devices, as Powershop and others offer. There have been simplified versions of this, including a 2007 experiment where customers were provided with an ‘ambient orb’ that glowed red when energy use was high, and green when it was modest. Customers provided with an orb reduced their peak-period energy use by 40%.

An even more ambitious nudge would be to make energy use public and bring in some peer pressure. Imagine if the ambient orb was on the outside of the house – if all your neighbours were glowing green, how would you feel about glowing red?

Fuel consumption could be nudged downwards using the same principle. China has already instituted green number plates on electric vehicles, and similar changes are being discussed in the UK (The Guardian). This simple change would help to normalise the use of EVs, and help EV drivers to send a ‘virtue signal’ out into the world, encouraging others to get on board.

Digging into our behavioural core

When it comes to climate change, it’s important to see the whole board. Debate around climate change usually revolves around questions like political or technological barriers – but as we’ve just been arguing, there’s also a crucial psychological dimension here we need to address. 

Just as we’ve dug into Antarctica’s ice core to understand the impact of human activity on the atmosphere, we’re now digging into our own minds and getting a much better understanding of why we do what we do – and how to change. It might feel like humanity is facing the perfect storm, but it’s a storm we can weather. Here’s to brighter days ahead.

 About the Authors

Renee Jaine

Renee has nine years’ diverse work experience as a behaviour-change and management specialist, in roles that have included consulting, research and analysis, academic work, and communications. She is skilled at defining a client’s challenge, conducting research to get to the heart of the issue, and generating innovative and practical solutions.

The unifying theme in Renee’s work is her passion for using research-backed insights to promote wellbeing, reduce harm, and increase impact.

Before joining the MartinJenkins team, Renee served as Business Director of Ogilvy Change NZ, establishing the New Zealand branch of this international behaviour-change consultancy.

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Andrew Horwood

Highly skilled in regulatory analysis, Andy understands ministerial and government agency perspectives and knows the public policy and regulatory environments intimately. With his open, straight-up interpersonal style, he is recognised for always providing free, frank and constructive advice. Andy knows how to build and manage successful relationships with government, industry, iwi and other stakeholders.

Clients value Andy’s canny, energetic focus on getting things done. With his proactive, pragmatic approach, he is able to see problems and priorities clearly, develop solutions that work, and build the collaborative relationships needed to make the solutions happen.

Andy’s recent projects for MartinJenkins include co-leading a review of New Zealand’s sport integrity arrangements at Sport New Zealand, which included preparing a comprehensive discussion document. In 2018 he also supported the Treasury’s advice to Select Committee on the Overseas Investment Amendment Bill, and helped the Ministry of Education by mustering Budget bids.

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