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  • 2nd Nov 2021

Will green tech save us or must we all change our behaviour?

We need to build a world in which the greener choice is simply the obvious choice

The UK’s Net zero strategy paints an optimistic picture of job creation, levelling up and technological advancements. Keen to avoid any hint of abstemiousness, the prime minister promises a future in which “our cars will be electric, gliding silently around our cities, our planes will be zero emission allowing us to fly guilt-free, and our homes will be heated by cheap reliable power drawn from the winds of the North Sea”. 

It’s an appealing prospect, often perceived in contrast to the alternative: that we drive far less, shifting to public and active travel, we stop flying, doing our business on Zoom or our vacations in Frome, we cut back on beef burgers, and we all save energy by taking shorter showers, air-drying our laundry and turning down our heating. A harder vision to sell.

Even as a behavioural scientist, I’d argue the focus on technology in the government’s Net zero strategy is fundamentally the right approach, in part because it minimises the burden on individuals. After all, behaviour change is hard and our attention, effort and motivation are all precious resources. However, we argue that the dichotomy between a focus on technology or a focus on behaviour is actually false, on two counts.

Technology adoption is a behaviour

First, technology adoption is a behaviour. Installing a heat pump can be a difficult one at that, our research shows: while a broken boiler in the midst of winter can be replaced in days, the sheer amount of research, ancillary works to the house, planning and noise regulations, higher upfront cost and general lack of knowledge can be major barriers to heat pump adoption. An announcement of new £5,000 grants will stimulate wider interest and is already acting to raise public awareness, but hassle matters too. Where will it go? Will I need to change my radiators? How do I find a trusted contractor? 

The Climate Change Committee, whose modelling and advice is the yardstick for UK climate policy, highlights this very fact: over 60 per cent of emissions reductions rely on behaviour. But the lion’s share of this is technology adoption behaviours, while around nine per cent depends on ‘curtailment behaviours’: a little less driving and a bit more cycling, a few more veggies instead of rainforest beef, and bit less flying when we can avoid it (not the occasional holidaymakers, it’s just 15 per cent of Brits who actually take 70 per cent of flights).

Which takes us to our second point: it’s not an either-or. The scale of the task is huge and depends on every tool we have: massive infrastructure change, widespread technology adoption and a fair bit of consumer behaviour.

Policy has to take behaviour into account

Read the document fully, and the Net zero strategy is, rightly, explicit about this reliance on behaviour: “empower the public to make green choices’; ‘provide advice to homeowners on decarbonising their homes’, ‘promote [energy] demand reduction’, ‘half of journeys in towns and cities to be cycled or walked by 2030”, to list but a few.

So, a behaviour savvy approach to policy making, as promoted by the Net zero strategy, is absolutely vital.

On occasion, this might mean we’re asked to take direct steps. Why not take a free test drive in an electric car, even if you’re not convinced yet? Why not freeze that bread before it goes mouldy? Or ask your employer whether your pension is green? (£3 trillion of UK pension pots would help green growth).

We know from our research that most Brits want to do more but are confused about what steps have the greatest impact. That’s why green product labels (also proposed in the government’s strategy) are so crucial. It’s madness that we can’t discern which supermarket, airline, pack of sausages, pension product or pair of jeans is the greener choice.

The green choices we make reward greener companies

But business and government policy must do much of the heavy lifting. As stated in the strategy, we must “unleash the great creative power of capitalism” and “make green choices affordable and easy”. But it’s precisely by helping consumers choose the greener option which, in turn, rewards the greener products and firms, and thus aligns commercial incentives, that this comes about.

It worked for the familiar safety ratings on vehicles: manufacturers now have to compete on safety to maintain market share, and so emerged such wonders as ABS and side airbags. In other words, it’s often less about changing consumer behaviour, as unleashing consumer behaviour to change business behaviour which, in turn, makes it easy for everyone.

Incentives (including taxes) matter for the same reason. Not to raise prices for consumers, but to ensure businesses do better by developing and promoting greener options. This is how we build a world in which the greener choice is simply the obvious choice.

Imagine a world in which supermarkets weren’t brimming with plastic, in which you could charge your electric vehicle in five minutes at a quarter the cost of a tank of fuel, in which it was normal and easy to return your laptop for an upgrade, not buy a new one.

In short, a world in which choosing green didn’t feel like swimming against the current. We wouldn’t be so worried about those ‘behaviours’ then. But such innovation doesn’t exist in isolation from society. It’s a sophisticated blend of behavioural science and engineering that we need.