Nature underpins the global economy, enriches the lives of billions, and provides the conditions in which humanity can flourish. However, our natural environment faces enormous threats and human behaviour lies behind many of them.
To make progress, we must augment conventional awareness-raising and economic and technological solutions by offering a focus on human behaviour. In areas such as shifting consumers towards greener energy, transport or food choices, our work to date has demonstrated the value of this approach.
Moving forward, we see that deeper insights into the minutiae of human decision-making and social interactions are needed to steer markets and entire systems towards sustainable solutions. We are keen to keep working with policymakers, non-governmental organisations and private partners to make this shift happen.
Driving and accelerating electric vehicle adoption
Transport is a major source of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. In the UK alone the sector accounts for around 28% of all GHG emissions, more than any other sector.
Alongside a transition to more active travel, greater public transport use and human-centred urban planning, the large-scale adoption of electric vehicles (EVs) is a key pillar of the UK government’s efforts to create a carbon neutral economy by 2050.
Towards the end of 2020 the government announced plans to ban the sale of new petrol and diesel cars from 2030. This new urgency makes the question of how to accelerate uptake of EVs more pressing than ever. At its heart this a behavioural issue and therefore one where behavioural insights can and must play a major role if we are to achieve these GHG reduction targets.
In our work in this area we’ve diagnosed barriers to EV uptake, such as:
- Do people perceive them as viable for their needs? Public knowledge must be accurate, and perceptions of EVs positive if this is to occur.
- Are EVs affordable? Affordability is currently a major barrier, in particular upfront costs which loom large in the mind despite cheaper running costs. Since most people never buy a new car, a critical component of this is the penetration of EVs into the second hand market. Increasing this, for instance through short-ownership commercial fleets, is vital.
- Is charging convenient? Charge points must be rapid and ubiquitous. However the devil is in the detail – perceptions are often worse than reality, so initiatives to align the two are worthwhile.
- Is the vehicle functionality adequate? This includes addressing concerns over range and confidence in long-term battery life, particularly among second-hand buyers.
- And are EVs desirable? Do they fit in with common aspirations and mainstream identities?
Through workshops with a wide range of stakeholders, we’ve developed 65 behavioural policy options tackling these objectives. We’ve also tested many of them with private and commercial consumers to gauge public support and likely impacts.
We firmly believe that a holistic approach is necessary, to address all of these barriers. Though some big-ticket policies may be necessary to address cost barriers and improve infrastructure, there are also many finer behavioural points that will have outsize impacts – from the way in which pricing is communicated and grants are framed, to the way in which simple market mechanisms such as standardised tests could increase buyer confidence in second-hand battery life.
Students and parents around the world are increasingly looking for educational institutions that reflect their pro-environmental values. Moreover, university is a formative time when many new habits, values and behaviours are established – and these can last a lifetime. Universities are therefore a uniquely powerful setting in which to nudge students (and staff) towards more sustainable choices.
Working with the United Nations Environment Programme and GRID-Arendal, we have developed a series of 40 green nudges that can be applied at universities around the world.
These will help campus users to consume less energy and water, eat more sustainably, choose low-carbon travel and become increasingly engaged in environmental issues.
Wildlife conservation is often a human behavioural issue. How do we manage our natural resources? How do we promote cooperation, fairness and sustainability in their extraction? How can we protect endangered species from exploitation, conflict with humans and the consumption of illegal wildlife products?
The conservation sector is rightly starting to embrace behavioural science and rigorous scientific approaches to understanding and measuring human behaviour. But we are still at an early stage in this journey.
BIT has started to outline what behavioural science can offer in relation to this very important issue. We are looking at how conventional methods focusing on regulation, incentives and awareness-raising can falter, and presenting methodologies, tools and case studies that incorporate our latest understanding of behavioural science.
Our relationship with food is unsustainable, as the products we consume are causing untenable levels of carbon emissions, deforestation, pollution and soil erosion. And yet dietary change is nothing new – the diets of people all around the world have frequently changed in response to environmental factors, policy, market forces, and cultural norms and tastes.
Behavioural science has a lot to offer. It can help to explain the factors that influence our eating habits, and it can assist in developing policies and interventions that forward-thinking governments, businesses and citizens can embrace.
Diet is also a uniquely sensitive topic, brushing up against our intuitions around autonomy and free choice in what we eat. Attempts to change national diets also have impacts on important, longstanding and often traditional communities working in agriculture and food production. Behavioural science can help us to navigate these issues of consent and support for change.