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  • 30th Oct 2023

Behavior change is key to successful climate action plans

States and large cities have been working hard to respond to the climate crisis, and the next few months are especially critical. Many are racing to create climate action plans in time to unlock $5 billion in grants to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Developing these plans entails prioritizing high-impact climate actions, conducting community outreach, and designing effective programs and policies.

Successful climate action plans must consider, and plan for, changing people’s behavior. For the world to reach net zero emissions by 2050, 62% of emissions cuts require residents or businesses to change what they do. Many of the top ten actions to reduce community-wide emissions require substantial behavior change. For example:

Key Actions We Need to Take

1. Improve energy efficiency in existing buildings and homes.

This will require businesses, landlords, and residents to install new technologies (including finding contractors, conducting major renovations, and navigating through home energy rebate programs). These multi-step processes are notoriously difficult for individuals to navigate, and often require high upfront costs in terms of time and hassle, in exchange for uncertain future payoff.

2. Expand access to safe, efficient transit and multi-modal transportation options.

This will require families to change their commuting habits, drivers to practice better road safety around pedestrians and bicyclists, and businesses to install electric vehicle charging stations. Small policy design choices, such as how transit fares are structured, can have an outsized impact on residents’ motivation to change.

3. Incentivize responsible purchasing and promote zero waste policies and actions throughout the community.

This will require residents to change their purchasing behaviors (especially in high-consuming neighborhoods), which are significantly influenced by social norms. New waste policies often require residents and businesses to adhere to complex sorting guidelines, and procurement professionals to comply with new purchasing criteria. 

Climate plans may fall short without thoughtfully incorporating behavior change strategies. Here’s how a behavioral insights approach can help enhance the entire climate action plan process.

Behavioral Insights to Select and Design Effective Climate Actions

Outreach and journey mapping

As part of building their community action plans, states and cities conduct outreach with residents, nonprofits, and businesses. A behavioral insights approach can strengthen these efforts. For example, behavioral journey mapping can be used to discover which climate actions are likely to be effective, and to maximize their impact.

In our work to increase home energy efficiency, we created a behavioral journey map of the steps customers had to take to retrofit their home. By visualizing this process, we were able to identify barriers at each step that might be addressed through practical changes. 

A behavioral map of the steps customers had to take to retrofit their home.

The large upfront cost was one factor holding customers back. A behaviorally-informed way to minimize these costs could be through green financing solutions or accessible rebates.
Simply stating, “encourage home retrofits” in a climate action plan may not be enough– a state or city that maps out the resident’s retrofitting journey would be able to identify specific solutions and supports to make their programs equitable and successful. 

Prioritizing Actions

Some behavioral barriers will be tougher to address than others. In one project, we found that encouraging people to change their home heating habits was too big of an ask. Instead, providing residents with totally new, sustainable thermostats was the better option. Officials should assess who will need to change their behaviors and how difficult that behavior change will be, so they can prioritize climate actions that will work in practice, not just in theory.

Behavioral insights for implementing climate action plans

Once your plan is finalized, behavioral insights will continue to be crucial to successful adoption:

Increasing uptake and impact of programs

Many programs, such as home energy rebates, will require residents to complete multi-step processes. Applying a behavioral insights approach can make recruitment and retention for these programs considerably more successful. For instance, we helped the City of Chicago increase the rates of residents returning home water lead testing kits by simplifying kit materials and processes. Similar approaches could encourage people to enroll in retrofit rebate programs, apply for clean energy job training, and more.

Designing more effective policies

New rules, regulations, or policies should be designed with how humans actually behave in mind (e.g., motivating firms to change their behavior using smart tax design, and testing which heat pump subsidies motivate homeowners). Behavioral principles, such as timeliness and saliency, can maximize the impact of policies, such as by making sure home buyers see home energy disclosures at moments when it is most likely to impact their purchasing decision. 

Encouraging lifestyle changes through communications

Successful climate messaging campaigns use 11 evidence-based principles to drive behavior change. Testing different messages can help build public support for new climate policies as well.

Responding to the climate crisis together

What will your residents, businesses, and officials need to change about what they do? What are their biggest hurdles? How will you ensure that climate policies are designed effectively—and that resident-facing programs, such as home energy rebates, have strong uptake?

We’d love to help you answer these questions and chart a path to a more resilient and sustainable future. To explore applying behavioral insights to your city or state’s climate action plan, contact Anna Keleher or get in touch with the Behavioral Insights Team today.