Three challenges to persuading people to reduce their carbon footprint – and three potential solutions

We all need to change our behaviour if we are to meet crucial climate change targets. But that’s easier said than done. Nick How has been researching people’s attitudes – here are his takeaways

The UK is committed to becoming carbon neutral by 2050 – even signing the resolution into law. But if this is to come about, it will take a huge effort not just from the government but from all of us as individuals.

As part of my work with Qa, I have been researching people’s attitudes towards carbon efficiency. From what I’ve found, it is safe to say we have a long way to go to make that 2050 target attainable.

So here I set out three of the key challenges my work has identified; and then three potential ways we might start to generate behaviour change on the scale required.

The challenges

1. The perception gap

Working with focus groups representing a good cross-section of the British public, I have become aware of a perception gap.

First of all, while most people are aware that we need to do more to safeguard the planet, there is limited understanding of the meaning behind specific terms like carbon emissions, net zero, or carbon neutrality.

Secondly, most people already consider that they are behaving properly. The majority of respondents will say they recycle, turn the lights off when they leave a room, reuse plastic bags and buy some eco-products. But this barely skims the surface of what’s required – there is a gulf between people’s current ‘green’ behaviour and what experts say is needed to reach carbon neutrality.

Thirdly, 2050 seems a long way off. The impacts of individual behaviours on emissions are not felt immediately. That can make any discussions on the subject seem distant and abstract – even though action is needed now.

2. Change is confusing and difficult

We are now being bombarded by messages about how to live greener, and the differing impacts of all our actions on climate emissions. In isolation these can make sense but, taken together, can become overwhelming.

Even a single issue has its challenges. Many respondents like the idea of fitting solar panels, both to save money on energy bills and to help the planet. But there are many hoops to jump through, including: weighing up the financial outlay versus return on investment; choosing the right product and fitter; evaluating whether householders will stay in their property for long enough to reap the dividends, and so on.

3. Financial incentives can be viewed with suspicion

Some of the work I have been undertaking considers the impact of financial rewards and penalties on people’s potential take-up of energy efficient measures for their home or commercial property.

Our focus groups were given the environmental context behind the schemes – and the benefits to wider society. But many viewed even financial rewards through a prism of self-interest, asking questions like:

  • will I benefit financially?
  • will someone else benefit?
  • will I have to pay more to subsidise energy-saving measures for other people?

Potential solutions

1. Persuade people they are part of the problem

Communication campaigns that attempt to nudge people to change their behaviour can have an effect. But that only goes so far.

To create the paradigm shift required, we need to make carbon-emitting behaviour socially unacceptable.

We can look at successful public health campaigns to give us a lead on this. A generation or two ago, drink driving was widely accepted, despite being against the law. But hard-hitting campaigns mean that today, a drink-driver is a social pariah. Could people who recklessly disregard their carbon footprint one day have a similar status in society?

2. Lead by example

By necessity, a lot of the messages urging us to adopt greener behaviours are delivered from ‘on high’ – via the government, council or corporation.

So, these institutions should take the lead. If a taxpayer is being asked to do more, and yet sees their town hall with all its lights left on at night, they will ask: ‘why should I?’ But if they see ministers cycling to meetings, rather than taking their ministerial car, then the message becomes: ‘we’re all in this together’.

3. Test and refine financial incentives

Our work investigating the efficacy of financial schemes to change behaviour has proved one thing: that there is no one-size-fits-all solution.

Here, I would suggest a three-part approach. Firstly, make any scheme as simple to take up as possible. Widespread recycling was only adopted when householders no longer had to traipse to a bottle bank, but could leave their waste for recycling on the doorstep for council collection.

Secondly, any scheme should be allied to an educational programme to make it known that everyone will benefit – not just those who directly save money. The aim would be to change attitudes from, ‘why should my neighbour get a discount on their electric car?’, to ‘it’s great that my neighbour has an electric car, which benefits the air I breathe and the planet as a whole’.

Thirdly, and perhaps most crucially, multiple different financial incentive schemes should be trialled, and each properly analysed for their effectiveness – with the results widely shared.

By learning as we go, we will be in a better position to design schemes that can be upscaled to help generate the behaviour change our planet needs to see.


Nick How is Research Director at Qa Research. You can contact him at nick.how@qaresearch.co.uk or on 01904 632 039

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