Behaviour change and sustainability

15 February 2022


Behaviour change and sustainability

Reported by Richard Moulange, President of the Cambridge University Science and Policy Exchange (CUSPE)

The Centre for Science and Policy (CSaP), in collaboration with Professor Charles Kennel, Director Emeritus at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, University of California San Diego, delivered the 2022 series of climate change seminars hosted by Christ’s College, Cambridge.The second seminar chaired by Dr Rob Doubleday – CSaP Executive Director – explored how behavioural science can inform policymaking to improve sustainability and help reach net zero.

Dr Doubleday was joined by David Hill, Director-General for Environment, Rural and Marine at DEFRA, Professor Dame Theresa Marteau, Director of the Behaviour and Health Research Unit, University of Cambridge and Lucia Reisch, El-Erian Professor of Behavioural Economics and Policy, University of Cambridge.

To watch the seminar back, please click on the link below:

The conversation focused on the challenges facing policymakers working to make the UK more sustainable and achieve its 2050 net zero target, and how behavioural science can provide effective tools to help change behaviour at scale. There were also interesting discussions around the limitations of behavioural change and audience members highlighted the need for policymakers to mitigate the risk that behavioural interventions could increase inequality.

What does the sustainability policy landscape look like?

Hill opened the discussion by describing recent regulatory changes introduced by the UK government. With the 25 Year Environment Plan and the 2050 net zero strategy, the government has moved towards introducing long-term sometimes legally binding targets. He explained that public opinion has similarly shifted: research commissioned by DEFRA in 2021 found that 80% of UK citizens believe that we must change the way we live our lives to address the challenges of climate change.

Hill emphasised that achieving widespread behaviour change is integral to tackling climate change, noting that DEFRA now has its own Strategic Behavioural Insights team. He described successful policy as that which integrates behaviour change across different government projects and is implemented in an ‘inclusive’ way: policymakers should look to build public support and ensure that the benefits and costs of the sustainability transition are fairly distributed among consumers and businesses.

How can behaviour interventions help tackle climate change and will they be enough?

Noting that one-third of greenhouse gas emissions are linked to demand, Prof. Reisch explained how behavioural perspectives of demand are helpful in designing effective climate change mitigation policy. Consumer demand for fossil fuels is mediated by human biases that impede policy responses. For instance, ‘present bias’ – an exaggerated focus on what happens now – makes it more difficult to tackle inherently long-term problems. She further explained that humans are also under-motivated to address problems they haven’t experienced first-hand, however recent extreme weather events may go some way to reverse this. On the other hand, Prof. Reisch said biases can also inform future policy. She said the COVID-19 pandemic showed how social norms, like being vaccinated, can spread quickly through a population and that governments can help influence this.

Prof. Reisch also categorised and compared types of behavioural interventions. The first kind are warnings and labels – these have already been used by the government, for example on tobacco products. Second are ‘self-nudges’ like implementation intentions. These are low-cost and work at the level of an individual. Third, social and system architecture can be altered on a large scale. This group includes website design and pension auto-enrolment. Prof. Reisch noted that this last group tend to have the biggest effect sizes, though recent reviews of the evidence are likely to be distorted by publication bias: since architectural interventions are large-scale and possibly harder to implement, it might be that only the most successful are tested and reported. Nevertheless, she also emphasised that – irrespective of effect size – nudges are not sufficient to reach net-zero on their own.

What can we learn from other major attempts to change behaviour at scale?

By considering the examples of tobacco control and rising obesity, Prof. Marteau explored how best to implement behaviour change robustly. She noted that a recent Royal College of Physician’s report argued that previous governments failed to tackle smoking quickly enough. The report highlighted the role of the tobacco industry in delaying the introduction of effective interventions first suggested in 1962. Prof. Marteau suggested more research and action is urgently needed to better protect policymaking from corporate interference. She also argued for evaluation of policies designed to change behaviour. Marteau advised introducing the most well-researched policies with the highest effect sizes first, and encouraged policymakers to incorporate evaluation systems into policy design from the outset.

“We have to act rapidly now. We can’t just have loads of pilot studies. To halve our emissions by 2030 we need to be far more ambitious than we feel comfortable with.”

Prof. Marteau also cautioned that policymakers cannot solely rely on technology to enable behaviour change. She explained that over the last decade, 87% of carbon emission reductions in the UK were estimated to have been due to technology improvements. Over the next 15 years this proportion is estimated to fall to 40%. This means that changing behaviour will become more important for tackling climate change. Prof. Marteau argued that it is important to act fast and to understand now which behavioural techniques best translate into policy interventions. She emphasised that any partnerships and interventions must be evidence-based, evaluated, coordinated and protected from corporate interference.

How do we avoid disproportionately negative impacts on more deprived communities?

Prof. Reisch responded to this audience question arguing that policymakers need to take disparities into account at the policy-design stage and make sure they consider who will lose out from any intervention. Hill agreed, highlighting that the management of air pollution via levies on higher-polluting vehicles gained public acceptance only because it was paired with direct financial support to upgrade vehicles and some rebates for local businesses. Prof. Marteau also noted that interventions which require high levels of personal agency are more likely to increase inequality. As an alternative, Marteau cited recent research that showed inequities are often entrenched into local environments. She suggested that interventions aimed at improving local communities, like creating new green spaces in deprived areas, are more likely to address concerns about inequality. As well as fairness, Prof. Reisch said good nudging techniques need to be evidence-based, transparent and welfare-enhancing. She encouraged the use of new ‘life reviews’ which help identify the current level of evidence for different policies, allowing decision makers to better argue for the policy choices they make.

The seminar concluded with a couple of interesting questions from Professor Charles Kennel: to what extent can we think of behaviour change as a tool to achieve pre-determined ends? And to what extent do we need to think more fundamentally about the kinds of behaviours and the kind of society, that we all aim to be?

To watch the first Climate Seminar back - Sustainable finance, risk and transition to clean tech - please click here.

David Hill

Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs (Defra)

Professor Dame Theresa Marteau

Behaviour and Health Research Unit (BHRU), University of Cambridge

Richard Moulange

Cambridge University Science and Policy Exchange

Professor Lucia Reisch

Cambridge Judge Business School (CJBS), University of Cambridge