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  • 13th Apr 2022

The role of behaviour change in the race to Net Zero

A response to the IPPC’s AR6 report

Last week the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Working Group 3 released its sixth assessment report (AR6). Coming around every 6-8 years these hefty tomes summarise the state of climate knowledge from the scientific community, and this one is all about solutions. Since we’ll be pushing 2030 by the time the next one comes out, it holds no punches in emphasising that the time for the boldest of action really is ‘now or never’.

It was of particular interest to us because it was the first iteration to properly emphasise the role of demand-side solutions, i.e. social and behavioural change. In stark contrast to the gloomy picture of the climate emergency more broadly, chapter 5 paints a pretty positive picture of the potential for demand-reduction. Based on sophisticated carbon modelling, the report highlights just how much we can achieve if we all shift towards a more balanced and sustainable diet, drive less, fly less, take shorter showers, re-use and repair, and so on. It’s obviously fantastic, for the behavioural science community, to see this dimension brought to the fore (though perhaps dismaying that this perspective was even considered a novelty at this point).

…changes to our lifestyles and behaviour can result in a 40-70% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. This offers significant untapped potential”

Rapid and deep changes in demand make it easier for every sector to reduce emissions”

Socio-cultural changes can offer Gigaton-scale CO2 savings, and represent a substantial overlooked strategy”

But here’s the rub:

For one, while the modelled carbon reductions are undoubtedly true, they’re based on a pretty big ‘if’. Society changes all the time, but achieving such radical transformations in patterns of behaviour, by design, within the bounds of public acceptability, democratic process, and a just transition, is a gargantuan task. At this stage we have a good understanding of human behaviour, reliable principles to draw upon, and countless case studies of effective behaviour change (if mostly modest, by comparison). But no country in the world has a real plan for this re-making of society.

Second, the AR6 presents a very one sided framing – of social and behavioural change bearing nothing but gifts. Additional mitigation potential. In practice, the social and behavioural dimension doesn’t only present opportunities to reduce energy and resource demand, but also brings major challenges in delivering the whole endeavour, even the supposedly ‘non-behavioural’ bits.

Perhaps NIMBYism will slow down nuclear and wind development? Countervailing narratives might emerge in public discourse and undermine bold policy or investment decisions? Status quo bias, loss aversion and a hesitancy over unfamiliar technologies might slow down adoption curves? Some might not retrofit their homes even when it makes good economic sense to do so because of friction costs and present bias? Many may fail to transition to a heat pump because their boiler breaks in the winter, and the transition simply takes too long, locking them into another fossil fuel unit for 15 years.

In other words, we must not view behaviour solely as a hitherto untapped piece of the mitigation pie. Don’t get me wrong – it is that, and this report should be a clarion call for governments, businesses, charities and others to embrace behavioural solutions. But that’s half the picture.

Behaviour must be viewed more broadly as a critical dimension to the whole decarbonisation agenda. That includes issues normally viewed as narrowly technological, financial or political. Let’s keep in mind that at least 62% of emissions reductions depend on behaviour-chand (in the UK, but similar figures internationally), and that’s assuming we do just the bare minimum of demand reduction for aviation, meat and driving, giving us 9% carbon reductions – far less than envisaged in the IPCC’s low-demand pathways.

The other 53% is tech adoption. That’s exactly why so much of our work these days focuses on the adoption of heat pumps and electric vehicles; on the behavioural dimensions of green finance decisions; on designing-out behavioural market failures so competition and innovation can better play their role; and understanding the role of public engagement and deliberative democracy in driving stronger policy (watch this space). There’s no shortage of solutions.

It turns out quirky human beings are involved in all aspects of this transition.


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