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The climate change solution governments don’t want to talk about

Electric cars and hydrogen flights alone won’t save us from climate chaos, say experts. It’s our behaviour that now needs to change.

In October 2021, with just weeks to go until COP26, the UK government published more than 20 research documents to accompany its long-awaited net zero strategy.

Buried among these was research outlining a controversial proposition: achieving net zero emissions by 2050 will require a “significant reduction” in public demand for high-carbon activities such as “flying and eating ruminant meat and dairy”. 

Only the most eagle-eyed spotted the document, which was deleted within 24 hours of being published. When asked by the Big Issue why it was removed, a spokesperson from the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) simply said it had been “mistakenly published”. 

Whatever the government’s motivations in deleting the document, the incident serves as a fitting metaphor for policymakers’ continuing refusal to address the elephant in the room when it comes to climate change: the need for a wide-scale shift in public behaviour. 

For years, the public has been assured by politicians that adjusting to a greener society will require almost no effort on our part, with all our habits, purchases and lifestyle choices seamlessly replaceable with greener, lower-carbon alternatives. 

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Policymakers tell us that hydrogen planes, electric cars and nuclear energy are the complete answer to our climate woes. Climate experts, however, say the crisis will be impossible to solve without seismic shifts in our consumption patterns, lifestyles and behaviours. 

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“I think people underestimate just how much behavioural change is going to be required [to reach net zero],” says Professor Lorraine Whitmarsh, an environmental psychologist at the University of Bath. 

“Turning off the taps while you brush your teeth isn’t going to be enough. We’re going to have to cut down on driving, flying, eating meat and dairy and wasting and consuming less in general. The changes will have to be big,” she adds. 

Confronted with this suggestion, it’s not hard to see why governments steer clear of public behaviour when it comes to addressing climate change. Enacting this kind of shift is “painful” for governments, says Dr Kate Pangbourne, an expert in transport-related behavioural change at the University of Leeds. 

“The mantra of a number of Global North governments is freedom of choice and freedom of the consumer. 

“You see the kickback as soon as somebody suggests that car use might have to fall – you get headlines like ‘war on cars’. That’s why the issue is so problematic for governments,” she explains. 

Instead, the UK government has projected a vision for the future which relies on what Toby Park of the Behavioural Insights Team [BIT] refers to as “techno-optimism”. 

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Giving evidence to the Lords’ Environment and Climate Committee in December, Park warned that the government has a worrying “aversion” to encouraging more climate-friendly behaviours among the public. 

“Our [BIT’s] experience of interacting with No. 10 is that there is a strong vision [for climate action] but it is a vision of techno-optimism. 

“There is perhaps a narrow understanding of behaviour change and an aversion to finger-wagging and telling people what not to do,” he told the committee. 

Examples of “techno-optimism” are endemic across levels of government and society, from promises of no-emissions flights based on technology that doesn’t exist yet to the assumption that the impact of meat-eating can be mitigated by underdeveloped stem cell and methane-zapping technologies. 

Electric cars are perhaps the most pervasive example, says Dr Pangbourne, who says the government has failed to invest in public transport while encouraging the development of electric vehicles, which are “highly dependent on fossil fuels for actually building the infrastructure required. It’s an issue barely anyone is talking about”. 

To experts at least, it’s clear that while technology may get us some of the way to net zero, behaviour change is the only way we’ll actually achieve it.

Climate think tank Hot or Cool recently estimated that the average UK carbon footprint will need to fall from an 8.5 tonne average to 2.5 tonnes by 2030 alone, with further reductions by 2050. 

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Yet as anyone who’s switched to veganism or given up their car will know, the environments and markets we currently exist in are failing to incentivise low-carbon behaviours like eating less meat or flying less. 

New neighbourhoods are built to be car-dependent, for instance, while flying to Glasgow from London is cheaper than getting the train. Dairy-free milks are often three times the price of dairy milk, and electric cars are way out of most ordinary people’s price range.

This is perhaps the biggest barrier to wholesale change, say experts, with Park telling  Lords the “choice environment” must now shift to facilitate lower-carbon behaviours.

“We are hugely influenced and constrained by the ‘choice environment’: what is available, cheap, perceived to be normal or socially desirable or the default choice,” he said. 

Without removing these “frictions and barriers”, he added, low-carbon behaviours will remain too costly, difficult and expensive for the majority of people to adopt. 

The removal of these barriers is only the first step required if we’re to shift public behaviour at the speed now required, says Dr Pangbourne, who suggests that regulation must also play a part. 

She points to the examples of seatbelt-wearing and smoking indoors as examples of how quickly behaviour can change once these regulations come into place. 

“When I was growing up, it was deemed as absolutely everybody’s right to smoke in an office or restaurant. But that’s all changed now. 

“On the climate, I don’t think just nudging people towards different behaviours will work fast enough on its own. We need regulation to price private cars more appropriately, for instance.”

Such regulations are often unpopular with the public and policymakers because the changes are wrongly seen as a lowering of living standards, explains Prof Whitmarsh.

“I think there is an assumption that behaviour change equates to a reduction in standards – a sacrifice in living standards. 

“But a lot of the changes we’re talking about could really improve people’s quality of life and wellbeing. They could save money, have warmer homes, be more active and healthy – and save the NHS money,” she says. 

Promoting this positive vision of behaviour change will be absolutely vital for success, says environmental activist and writer Rob Hopkins, who told the Environment and Climate Committee: 

“If it feels as if we’re being dragged away from something irreplaceable, like a child who has had too many sweets at the end of a birthday party and who does not want to come home, we are not going to do it.” 

“Every step must feel like a move towards something rather than a move away from something,” he added. 

While Prof Pangbourne has been disappointed by the  government’s inaction on behavioural change, she says that grassroots organisations and communities are beginning to popularise the notion of low-waste, sustainable living without any interventions from the government. 

“You see a lot more small businesses opening up which allow you to take your own containers and fill them up, for instance. That’s completely new.”

Yet while these groups are promising, only top-down action from the government and local authorities will create the scale of change now required, experts say. 

Ewa Kmietowicz from the government’s climate advisory group the Climate Change Committee warned that engagement with the public must start immediately if the government is serious about reaching key targets for mitigating climate change. 

“We need to start this dialogue with the public straight away. We cannot shy away from these difficult decisions,” she told the committee.

“Bringing them on board and creating a joint shared narrative about how to achieve these difficult changes can only help in that process. We are trying to achieve the creation of a social mandate for change.”

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