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Five ways behavioural science can transform climate change action

Eating less meat, flying less, or opting for renewable energy can accelerate the transition to a low-carbon economy. But why aren’t more people doing this? What are the barriers to low carbon consumption?

Behavioural science can help us understand how people process, respond to, and share information to identify the drivers that transform awareness to action, and action to sustained behaviour change.

Here are five ways behavioural science can help shift everyday choices towards more sustainable practices:

  • Make the default option the better option. Changing the default option for organ donation from opt-in to opt-out transformed organ donation rates. If carbon offset were the opt-out rather than opt-in option across airline booking sites, for example, this could similarly transform carbon offset rates.
  • Change how choices are presented to favour sustainable behaviour. Traders since the beginning of time have understood the principles of choice architecture: that the mid-priced wine will sell best; that the expensive item will sell more if the mid-range item’s price is increased. In a classic case study, The Economist saw a surge in combined digital and magazine subscriptions—their more expensive option—when they introduced a new pricing strategy.
  • Remove the “unsustainable” option altogether. Policymakers can leapfrog a decade of slow shifting habitual behaviours by applying outright bans capable of changing behaviour overnight, as the plastic bag ban in Kenya has shown. The habitual behaviour that perpetuates plastic bag reliance is forced to switch to the sustainable alternative. The reusable bag became the new norm within days, not decades.
  • Remove the hassle factor. Make it 20 steps less to do the right thing, not 20 steps more. You only get a vegetarian meal on an airline if you take the extra steps to request it in advance. Let’s switch that and serve the “pasta” or the “curry” option (both vegetarian) and leave the beef lovers free to opt in to a meat option at the time of booking.
  • Go small, make it personal. Data and analytics can inform which messages more persuasively “nudge” behaviour within a specific audience segment. Deployed for a wide range of public information campaigns, including political campaigns, this should be the first, not last, type of strategy a climate change campaign considers.  Tailored, targeted messages can, for example, reach economically motivated individuals with an economic benefits message, addressing his/her barriers and motives.

“People in general are positive to climate change and carbon neutrality but these can be abstract concepts and remote to many people’s daily lives,” says UN Environment climate change expert Niklas Hagelberg. “Behavioural science and behaviour change approaches are therefore critical to support shifts in behaviour.”

An increasing number of governments are incorporating behavioural science into many aspects of their policymaking—from completing tax returns in time to lowering road accidents to promoting recycling and reducing plastic waste.

Consuming Differently, Consuming Sustainably (a UN Environment publication supported by the European Commission and authored by New York-based consulting firm ideas42) sheds light on opportunities of behavioural science to strengthen the effectiveness of policies for sustainable consumption.

Human demands on the Earth’s natural resources have outpaced what can be produced. We consume, in less than nine months, more resources than our planet produces in a year, and our rate of consumption continues to grow.

Furthermore, the growth of emerging economies is driving a rise in consumption across the globe. An increasing number of households in developing economies are joining the consuming class; experts estimate that two to three billion additional middle-class consumers will be added by 2050.

“Achieving sustainable consumption will require great global effort—it is critical that we employ all of the tools at our disposal. By using the deep understanding of decision-making offered by behavioural science, policymakers can design more effective policies to shift consumption patterns and achieve the Sustainable Development Goals,” says the report.

The UN Environment report offers three broad recommendations to policymakers to achieve better outcomes in sustainable consumption policy:

  • Incorporate behavioural science into policy processes and tools
  • Build internal behavioural policy capacity within policymaking entities
  • Expand behavioural science research efforts and dissemination.

Source – UN Environment

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