HomeBehaviour changeHow acceptable is government intervention on green behaviour?

How acceptable is government intervention on green behaviour?

This guest post, by Matthew Evans of Ipsos MORI,  is based on recent international research conducted by Ipsos MORI.

Delivering behaviour change is essential if we are to have a more sustainable society. Meeting the UK’s climate change targets will require action at an individual as well as governmental level.

There is a variety of ways in which these changes in behaviour can be achieved. These include top down legislation, providing information to enable people to make informed decisions, and offering incentives to ease the financial cost to people of making changes to the way they travel, heat their homes and choose more environmentally-friendly products. But what do the public think about these efforts to change the way they live?

Research into what succeeds
International research conducted by Ipsos MORI explored public acceptability of a range of measures intended to change behaviour across key policy areas. We investigated support for different levels of political intervention in the lives of individuals with regard to living in an environmentally sustainable way. The research considered the acceptability of interventions to bring about more environmentally conscious living, in comparison to other areas of public policy such as smoking, eating unhealthy foods and saving for retirement.

As such, we asked about the broad spectrum of mechanisms available to policy makers, including regulatory and non-regulatory tools: both ‘shoves’ and ‘nudges’. This provides a fascinating insight into what types of policy are likely to succeed. Indeed, as highlighted by the House of Lords report on Behaviour Change, “a measure which does not have public support is, in general, less likely to succeed”.

People want more information
So, what did we learn about the British public’s view of government efforts to change the way people live their lives? The first thing that stands out is that there is a high level of support for each type or level of intervention. As we often find when researching behaviour change, people want the tools to be able to make the right decision. There is exceptionally strong support for being provided with more information on how to live in a more sustainable way; nine in ten (90 per cent) support this type of policy in Great Britain.

And they want support
As well as being given information on how to live a more sustainable life, people want more direct support to be able to do so; nine in ten (90 per cent) support financial incentives, through reducing the cost of more sustainable options, such as taking public transport or insulating homes. Finance (or having the up-front capital) is often one of the biggest barriers to take-up of an environmentally friendly behaviour, as we have found in our research on the Green Deal and the Big Energy Shift. The British are also more likely to call for this form of incentive for environmental actions than they are for eating healthily or giving up smoking. This no doubt reflects the fact that better environmental choices do not always benefit the individual in the same way that passing up a pasty would, irrespective of whether it is warm or not.

Many would accept a restriction of choice
However, it is debatable whether providing more information and incentives alone would be enough to lead to a wide scale change in behaviour across society. It is encouraging then that, although support generally falls as the strength of the intervention increases, there is still a surprisingly high level of support for prohibitive government legislation. Just over half of us back legislative measures, either through making unsustainable products, such as non-recyclable products, more expensive (54 per cent support) or introducing an outright ban on them altogether (55 per cent support). While it is unlikely that this level of support would stretch to banning or restricting all types of products or services that damage the environment (for instance, air travel), it does indicate willingness amongst many for a restriction of choice.

A role for business
While over half the British public feel that we may need to pay more for unsustainable goods, many more feel that business has a role to play. Nine in ten Brits (87 per cent) back the idea that the government should make companies act in a more sustainable way. As with the use of incentives, there is greater public support for using producer responsibility to deliver better environmental outcomes than is the case for either healthy eating (81 per cent support) or smoking (78 per cent support).

Making it obvious and easier
However, before we interpret this as a green light for government to legislate for a greener society, it should be noted there is a considerable number who would feel uncomfortable with this kind of intervention; two in five (40 per cent) believe the “Government should not get involved in whether or not people choose to live sustainably”. For this not insignificant minority, it would suggest they want to retain the ability to make choices for themselves but are broadly amenable to the government making it more obvious and easier to choose the right (ie greenest) option.

What this research clearly shows, and what will encourage policy makers, is that people want to be supported in living a more environmentally conscious lifestyle, and that a majority are open to stronger government efforts, aimed at both business and the individual to bring about a more sustainable society.

Technical note:
The findings are drawn from the Ipsos MORI Global @dvisor online survey of c.18,500 adults across 24 countries. The results presented here are based on 1,014 people completing the survey in Great Britain aged 16-64. Fieldwork took place between
4 -22 November 2010.

Further details can be downloaded from Ipsos MORI.

Written by

Green Alliance is a charity and independent think tank focused on ambitious leadership and increased political support for environmental solutions in the UK. This blog provides space for commentary and analysis around environmental politics and policy issues as they affect the UK. The views of external contributors do not necessarily represent those of Green Alliance.

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