Nudge debate – turning fine words into action

At the end of March Green Alliance held its annual debate on a question we’ve talked about a lot on this blog: does government need to do more than nudge us towards sustainable living? The answer from panellists was a resounding yes, but they disagreed quite strongly on whether government is on track to do this.

Oliver Letwin MP, the minister for government policy, said that “change on a large scale” will only come about through a “mixture of crunchy policy, legislation and measures to do with how people act”, supporting the findings of our recent report. He added that with a combination of measures “we really can achieve culture change, which is what it’s all about.”

Nobody is hungry
The question is, are these fine words supported by what government is currently up to? Our analysis – and that of several of the panellists – suggests that in areas like household energy and water use, the answer is no. Simon Roberts, head of the Centre for Sustainable Energy, raised questions over whether the Green Deal to refurbish inefficient homes will be the ‘game changer’ that government has promised. He said that without stamp duty penalties and regulation (for example, banning the sale of homes rated below ‘C’ for energy efficiency by 2020) not enough people will take it up.

He drew an analogy between the government’s current approach and the famous canteen example in Nudge, where the placement of food affects what people choose to eat. He said that government has been arranging its nudges, (for example Energy Performance Certificates and the Green Deal) in the same way as healthy food is rearranged in a canteen to make it more palatable. But it has missed a vital point, he says – nobody is hungry.

When it comes to water, there is very little policy to encourage people to use less, and Letwin recognised that “water is the next great task”. All eyes will be on the water white paper which was due to be published this summer, but is now delayed until autumn.

Panellists were also keen to stress the importance of local action, and of engaging people through groups that already exist, such as sports clubs. Roberts said that not retrofitting homes on a local street-by-street basis was a “missed opportunity for a social experience” which could help get people involved.

Nudge, shove or think?
Over on our online comment series, most authors agreed that nudging people is not enough. Prof Tim Jackson wrote that “the transition to sustainable living demands changes in underlying structures” meaning the economy, infrastructure and institutions, not just nudges on individuals, while Trewin Restorick, head of Global Action Plan, argued that what people need is a shove from someone they trust.

However, Futerra’s Solitaire Townsend and Green Alliance Associate Becky Willis both contend that comprehensive green ‘super nudges’ – such as “a visible, bold investment in public transport, walking and cycling”, restrictions on car adverts and a raise in fuel duty – could get us a long way.

But “what the hell are we nudging people towards?” asked Townsend. “I can’t see how policy, incentives and ‘nudges’ can be developed without a definitive list of what a sustainable lifestyle actually entails.”

Public support
There is also the matter of gaining public support for big policy changes, which imperceptible nudges will not bring about. Psychologist Lorraine Whitmarsh wrote that “by treating the public as passive or ignorant, we risk undermining democratic principles, and – at a more practical level – we lose the opportunity to achieve more significant change which the public – if informed and involved – might actually support.”

Our report concluded that injecting a better understanding of human behaviour into green living policies is essential, but that nudging people is not enough. All the panellists at our debate including Oliver Letwin agreed on this.

In the coming months we’ll be working with government on policies such as the Green Deal, and on issues such as the role of business in delivering behaviour change. Our aim is to push government to keep to its word – and create policies that genuinely bring about widespread greener living.

(First picture – Cardiff University’s Lorraine Whitmarsh and the BBC’s Justin Rowlatt. Second picture – Oliver Letwin MP)


  • The Goverment is “fiddling whilst Rome (the world) burns”. There is a lack of vision. All this individualism is not going to get us anywhere. A National, International issue requires a Nation resolution. There is precedence for this. When the UK changed over to Natural Gas, it was a national change-over and the individual householder/ property owner had the option to either: allow the engineers in to make the adaptations or be cut off. Likewise, the 2011 Digital switchover is a national programme. The individual has no say in the matter. The common good has a superordinate position to and over the individual.
    Individual choice is going to be the death knell of our Carbon Emission Targets, and our well-being. One property a minute of existing homes needs energy-efficiency retrofitting until 2020. The country has hardly started to do so, and there are not the trained personnel or facilities or infrastructure in place to even kick-start the process. God help us all.
    Referring to the current financial crisis and Portugals bailout, a commentator said that the powers-at-be fail intellectually to grasp the seriousness of the situation ie, that Portugal is not generating enough national wealth to service its public sector costs. If it was a firm, it would go bust. Offering loans is just a sticking plaster measure. To survive, they must get their public costs under control and scaled down to in-line with their income generation; to cut their cloth according to their pocket.
    Likewise, the UK Government needs desperately to grasp the order-of-magnitude of the Carbon Reduction task immediately ahead and get on with it. With that leadership, example and direction, the rest of the country will follow in its train.

  • Nudges won’t work whilst UK householders continue to receive mixed messages from Government (withdrawal of fuel escalator), Business (Energy Suppliers profits) and the media (it’s just another tax). The country needs clear, unequivocal policy with hypothecated green taxes that set out a clear road map to achieve the emission reduction targets. Without this, Green Deal and other initiatives will certainly not be a “game changer” but another green policy failure, which further erodes pubic interest and confidence in tackling climate change.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s