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What will it take to change society for a greener future?

This post is by Libby Peake, head of resource policy, and Jasmine Dhaliwal, policy assistant, at Green Alliance.

Recently, we hosted an online discussion to get to the bottom of why the government is still ignoring behaviour change as a climate solution. It’s an important question because, if the UK is to stand any chance of meeting its climate goals – or addressing the huge wider environmental impacts of our consumption – it has to do much more to help us all do the right thing.

According to the Committee on Climate Change’s net zero assessment, only 38 per cent of the carbon emissions reduction required to meet net zero will come just from technological changes and using low carbon energy. And only nine per cent will come exclusively from societal or behaviour change. But over half of the emissions cuts we need to make (53 per cent) will depend on a combination of the two. This is why enabling and encouraging behaviour change should be right at the heart of government policy.

To solve the mystery of the missing policies, and what’s possible, for our event we were joined by a panel of experts in public attitudes, environmental behaviour change and the tax system. Here are four things we learned from their discussion:

People want change
Max Templer, research director at Thinks Insight and Strategy (formerly BritainThinks), led previous research for Green Alliance on public attitudes to greening the tax system. He told us what that research revealed quite clearly: that people are very concerned about climate change, with many picking it as one of their top three priorities; they want the tax system to make environmentally damaging behaviours more expensive and environmentally beneficial behaviours cheaper. But they don’t want it done by stealth, rather they want it centred around principles, including effectiveness and equity.

Change must be fair
Arun Advani, associate professor in economics at the University of Warwick and research fellow at the Institute of Fiscal Studies, noted that, to make change fair, you have to compensate some households for the higher costs they’re facing, for instance around energy, which can come through redistribution but also by providing them with the upfront costs for retrofitting their homes. He commented that, while the department formerly known as BEIS had made headway in proposing a scheme along these lines, it had been turned down by the Treasury, a department that could do with some behaviour change of its own to meet the government’s environmental ambitions. This is especially true if you consider Arun’s point that “the fundamental question of fairness in terms of the climate is an intergenerational one. Us not bearing some of those costs now is imposing costs on future generations”. The Treasury’s approach, focusing on growth in the here and now, is constrained by short term, five yearly targets, which makes it ill equipped to address this inherent unfairness.

Going ‘EAST’ can change behaviour
Toby Park, who leads the energy and sustainability work at the Behavioural Insights Team, which was the original ‘nudge unit’, said the government could support by making environmentally favourable decisions ‘easy, attractive, social and timely’ (ie EAST). That would mean, for instance, putting people on default greener energy tariffs, as Germany has done, resulting in ten times as many people staying on them because it’s easy. It could also mean focusing on other non-environmental benefits which happen to make green changes more attractive, such as installing heat pumps and improving energy efficiency to increase a home’s value. It can mean ensuring green behaviours are noticed by other people so they spread through ‘social contagion’, such as green electric vehicle number plates which are noticeable to other drivers. There can also be good moments to embed change, as with a scheme in the US that found that people were four times more likely to take up cycling when they move home and change their routine.

Other countries are doing better
Professor Lorraine Whitmarsh, environmental psychologist and director of the ESRC-funded UK Centre for Climate Change and Social Transformations, has had plenty of experience assessing how the government is doing. For instance, she advised on the recent House of Lords inquiry into behaviour change for climate, which found, categorically, that the government’s approach is “seriously inadequate”. She suggested that government reluctance to intervene was ideological and based on the false assumption that people don’t want change. What’s more, she said a major problem was that it tends to focus on just giving people information about what they could do rather than removing the barriers that prevent them from doing it.

On the bright side, she also pointed out that other countries with different approaches like France are doing much better. France has dedicated professionals that help households to find financial support for energy efficiency measures, as well as a new repairability index to help people identify products they can fix at limited expense.

One point all our panellists agreed on was that net zero and environmental behaviour change shouldn’t be siloed in specific departments or dedicated policies. It has to be central and run across government, with all policies viewed through a net zero ‘filter’, in the same way all policies must go through the Treasury’s cost benefit filter now. It’s clear that, before we can drive the changes needed throughout society for a greener future, the government needs to change first.

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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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