House of Lords findings: why green Nudges are not enough

This is a guest post by Baroness Neuberger, Chair of the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee’s inquiry into Behaviour Change. The committee’s findings are published today.

Changing behaviour is central to the work of all governments across all policy areas. Sustainable living, however, is one of those issues where the link between what the Government want to achieve and our behaviour is most obvious. How can the Government get us to use less energy and waste less water, recycle more and use our cars less?

For the past year, I’ve chaired the Science and Technology Committee’s inquiry into Behaviour Change. Our Report, which was published today, makes some important findings about efforts by the Government to change the way we behave. One of our two case studies looked specifically at what they can do to change behaviour to reduce car use.

Nudge or shove?
Perhaps our most important finding was that in order to solve the most important problems facing society now, including the challenge of reducing carbon emissions, the Government will need to do more than just “nudge” us in the right direction.

The rise in popularity of “nudging”, made famous by Thaler and Sunstein’s book Nudge, must be a welcome development. Many of the witnesses who gave evidence to our inquiry agreed that governments have relied for too long on an understanding of behaviour which focuses only on our rational and reflective decision-making. In doing so, they have neglected the ‘automatic’ system in our brains which acts on a less than fully conscious level, affecting our behaviour in ways that we are all too often not aware of. “Nudging” has underlined the importance of the ‘automatic’ system and the crucial role our physical and social environment plays in influencing our behaviour.

Choice architecture
When it comes to greener living, the environment in which we make our choices really matters. If food packaging is inconvenient to recycle, or not clearly marked as recyclable, we are less likely to recycle it. If supermarkets charge us for plastic bags, we are less likely to use them. If we live in the countryside with little or no public transport, we are more likely to drive. If our friends and family don’t worry about using less gas and electricity, then we are also less likely to be concerned.

But “nudging” is particularly about changing the environment in a way that doesn’t restrict our choice or significantly alter our financial incentives. In other words, it provides a new alternative – in addition to persuasive measures, like advertising campaigns or information provision – to regulatory and fiscal measures. The problem for the Government is that many of the changes to the environment necessary to achieve a real change in behaviour will require a good deal more than than a “nudge”.

No excuse to ignore the science
If we take reducing car use as an example, witnesses told us that a necessary component of changing behaviour on a large scale is to make using cars less attractive through measures like higher parking or road charges and pedestrianisation. But these sorts of measures are surely better described as “shoves” than “nudges”.

Avoiding the use of legislation and taxation to change behaviour is a laudable aim and regulation has all too often been used when it was not really needed. But this cannot be an excuse for ignoring what science tells us about changing behaviour.

We have urged the Government to ensure that a preference for avoiding regulation does not stop them from considering the evidence for the effectiveness of all available measures in changing behaviour. Moreover, we have highlighted that the evidence strongly suggests that no one measure will be effective in bring about substantial changes in behaviour across the population– particularly for complicated and deep-rooted behaviour. Instead, a raft of different measures, reflecting the multiple and varying factors that influence behaviour, will be required.

We need disincentives too
The Department for Transport have done a good job in thinking about the behavioural sciences and what they have to offer to policy development. They have focused on using integrated policy packages to tackle a range of influences on behaviour, piloted their ideas through the Sustainable Travel Towns programme (though this was not as well evaluated as it ought to have been), and taken steps to provide guidance to local authorities on how to change behaviour.

But the evidence is clear that disincentives to car use, which will often involve regulation or fiscal measures or both, will be required if car use is to be significantly reduced. The Government must take note of this and reflect it in their policies if they hope to achieve real behaviour change in the population as a whole.


  • Wow, really interesting to see the thoughts of those in power, who have had time to consider the evidence about this and how Government should drive forward this agenda for our own good.

  • Absolutely spot on! A welcome dose of reality to cure the “nudge” epidemic! Green taxes need to be hypothecated, otherwise scepticism abounds.

  • Pingback: The Sloman Economics News Site » Blog Archive » Is a nudging enough?

    Yet more alarmist misanthropic nonsense from the Green Alliance and the House of Lords. The public are sick and tired of the climate scare which is loosing its credibility day-by-day. Opposition groups are increasing – there is already a Campaign to Repeal the Climate Change Act, Hands Off Our Holiday, Fair Fuel UK, numerous fuel poverty charities – green is not a vote winner and has no mass support from the general public. The green NGOs and think-tanks are not democratically accountable so why should we care what you think. The public are not fooled by your wacky “sustainability” and “limits to growth” ideology. For instance less than 2% of airline customers choose to offset their emissions even though vast amounts of money has been spent on propaganda and companies have been set up. The 10:10 campaign – yet another flop – 72,000 signatures our of 60 million! Even the 225,000 Guardian readers didn’t all sign up to cutting their CO2 emissions, and then there is the recent survey by Centrica which found three quarters of the population is just not interested in paying another £100 on their energy bills to lower their carbon dioxide emissions!
    And why is this I wonder? Perhaps it is because of the flawed science and non-stop scandals – from Climategate – now its Polarbeargate:

    JUNEAU, Alaska (AP) — A federal wildlife biologist whose observation in 2004 of presumably drowned polar bears in the Arctic helped to galvanize the global warming movement has been placed on administrative leave and is being investigated for scientific misconduct, possibly over the veracity of that article.

    Charles Monnett, an Anchorage-based scientist with the U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement, or BOEMRE, was told July 18 that he was being put on leave, pending results of an investigation into “integrity issues.”

    At Watts Up With That you’ll find an excellent World Climate Report essay reporting on the background to the “drowning polar bear” story.

    But the part of the study that garnered the press attention so much so that it has become ingrained in global warming lore was that Monnett et al. reported the sighting of four polar bear carcasses floating in the sea several kilometers from shore, presumably having drowned. All four dead bears were spotted from the plane a few days after a strong storm had struck the area, with high winds and two meter high waves. Since polar bears are strong swimmers, the authors concluded that it was not just the swimming that caused the bears to drown, but that the swimming in association with high winds and waves, which made the exertion rate much greater, sapping the bears of their energy and leading to their deaths. The authors also suggested that the frequency and intensity of late summer and early fall storms should increase (as would the wave heights) because of global warming and thus the risk to swimming bears will increase along with the number of bears swimming (since there will be less ice) and subsequently more bears will drown. But they didn’t stop there—they suggested that the increased risk will not be borne by all bears equally, but that lone females and females with cubs will be most at risk—putting even more downward pressure of future polar bear populations. And thus a global warming poster child (or cub) is born.

    But does all of this follow from the data? Again, we haven’t heard of any reports of polar bear drownings in Alaska in 2005, 2006, or 2007—all years with about the same, or even less late-summer sea ice off the north coast of Alaska than in 2004, the year of the documented drownings.

    And the new research from NASA blows yet another massive hole in CAGW theory.
    NASA satellite data from the years 2000 through 2011 show the Earth’s atmosphere is allowing far more heat to be released into space than alarmist computer models have predicted, reports a new study in the peer-reviewed science journal Remote Sensing. The study indicates far less future global warming will occur than United Nations computer models have predicted, and supports prior studies indicating increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide trap far less heat than alarmists have claimed.

    Study co-author Dr. Roy Spencer, a principal research scientist at the University of Alabama in Huntsville and U.S. Science Team Leader for the Advanced Microwave Scanning Radiometer flying on NASA’s Aqua satellite, reports that real-world data from NASA’s Terra satellite contradict multiple assumptions fed into alarmist computer models.

    “The satellite observations suggest there is much more energy lost to space during and after warming than the climate models show,” Spencer said in a July 26 University of Alabama press release. “There is a huge discrepancy between the data and the forecasts that is especially big over the oceans.”

    Or because the taxpayer is just being RIPPED OFF – the UK is paying for a quarter of the entire EU’s costs associated with the Renewable Energy Directive.

    Many of the fuel costs are simply unjustifiable. For example, via energy bills and under the EU’s Emission Trading Scheme, every European citizen is currently subsidising the allocation of free permits to the largest European industrial CO2 producers to the tune of e32m (£28m). Many of these firms are just selling these permits on and making millions in windfall profits and this includes power companies. Clearly, something has gone very wrong.

    Fuel costs have risen to the point where we must ask ourselves, “is it worth building renewable power sources if consumers can’t afford to purchase the electricity they produce?” The sensible answer is no. It is naive and illogical to believe the UK can continue like this, and that consumers will be willing to put up with it.

    The Government has fundamentally misjudged public opinion. Politicians beware: green energy via domestic charges is not a vote winner or your attacks on the car drivers – so just “Nudge Off’ Baroness Neuberger it is time you opened your eyes and stopped listening to green propaganda.

  • For me, this article misses the point. We have had years of transport policy supposedly aimed at reducing car dependence. Higher town centre car park charges, pedestrianisation, confusing one-way streets, bus-only lanes, to name but a few. So how do you explain the fact that out-of-town big-box retailing has also been promoted, by allowing retailers to charge nothing for parking, encouraging yet greater car dependence, putting small retailers out of business, and marginalising those without cars? The Baroness’s assessment is 20 years too late. We all shop out of town now (unless you live in London Zones 1 and 2, which most people do not) . There’s little alternative to the car now.

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