Behaviour change or system change? How climate action is getting fudged

by Noel Cass

Dr. Noel Cass, Research Fellow in Energy Demand Behaviour at University of Leeds ITS, shares his insights on the eternal debate about who should take responsibility for reducing the carbon emissions that cause climate change and about how policy influences the choices we make.

Carbon footprints

‘Carbon footprints were invented by fossil fuel companies to distract the public from their own responsibility for climate change’. ‘The only reason why planes fly, cars are sold, and the rainforest is being cut down to graze cattle and grow animal feed is because of the consumer choices we, the public, make’. ‘How can Insulate Britain campaigners call for government action if they haven’t even insulated their own houses?’ ‘How can the leaders call for us to change our daily behaviour when they fly to and from the COP26 talks?’

The headlines and stories about taking climate action constantly ricochet between calls for behaviour change and for system change, placing the blame and responsibility sometimes on individuals, sometimes on institutions, sometimes consumers and sometimes corporations. Survey research, in particular, reveals that people believe that climate change is happening, that it is important, and that they are committed to doing something about it, but also, apparently, that they are not in favour of measures that would affect their own lives. Why is there such a confusion about where the agency for change, and therefore the responsibility for it, lies?

The Excess project

The public want to reduce their environmental impact, but they also see that the key actions required for this to be possible must first come from the government (and also, therefore and thereby, from companies). In CREDS, our Excess project Deliberative Workshops, conducted with members of the public with different levels of domestic and travel-related household energy consumption, asked about different broad policy approaches to achieving the significant reductions in ‘lifestyle’ emissions required to stay within the carbon budgets available to meet the Paris Agreement targets of avoiding 1.5-2 degrees of warming. This, according to a recent report from the Hot Or Cool Institute involves halving greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 and reducing household carbon footprints in developed countries by 80-93% by 2050.

These massive reductions in the carbon emitted through the pursuit of everyday life, in the context of the housing, food and transport infrastructures that exist, is not possible through technological substitutions alone. Our Workshops asked about which policy approaches to energy consumption reduction were fair, effective, and achievable, and revealed that the most support was for ‘Structural Change’ policies, such as the provision of (ideally free!) comprehensive and flexible public transport systems that removed the need for car use or flights, and the rolling out of renewable energy systems. These changes should, they said, be supported by Economic (Dis)incentives; taxes and charges on high carbon options to raise funds to be ring-fenced to subsidise the provision of insulation, renewable energy and those buses and trains.

The discussions involved e.g. some high-consumers calling for their own (60+ annual) flights, excessive car mileage and posh cars to be taxed a lot more. They also included lots of demands that high energy options (inefficient appliances, houses with no insulation or with gas central heating) could and should be removed from the market: “why are we allowed to buy things that are so poor in their energy rating in the first place?” The onus was seen as being on the state to remove bad choices from the market, by imposing regulations on producers, who should also be responsible for mending and maintaining products that should be expected to have much longer lives.

Only under these conditions should governments rely on ‘Behaviour Change’ or be able to impose carbon or energy ‘Rationing’. The latter should involve flexibility and choice where possible, they said, but if the other policy approaches had been implemented then people who then deliberately choose high energy options should be taxed to the hilt for those damaging choices.

Contradictory survey findings?

However, these sort of deliberated views, that arose over hours of small group discussions, do not come across in e.g. Guardian stories based on surveys, which take findings that “Most (76%) of those surveyed across the 10 countries said they would accept stricter environmental rules and regulations” but twist these to state that “few are willing to make significant lifestyle changes”. The survey report itself bases this interpretation on 45% of their sample not thinking that they “really need to change [their] habits“, and that they do not rank “favouring the use of public transport over cars (25%)”, “reducing travel by planes (23%)”, “banning fossil fuel vehicles (22%)”, or “reducing meat consumption (18%)” as being as important measures as “reducing waste and increasing recycling” (57%). Of course, this ranking of importance is nonsense in terms of climate impact, and the survey report authors are right to point out that people claim as important things that they already do, but which are pretty ineffective. This may indeed explain why 74% of their sample is “proud of what I am currently doing”. However, even just looking at the phrasing of those ‘measures’, they are more clearly actions for governments to take, rather than individuals.

The point is that the public are not stupid. To use the findings from that survey again, they feel that the local (19%) or national government (17%) and big corporations (13%) and companies are not as ‘highly committed’ to ‘preserving the planet’ as they are themselves (36%). But they may also see that they themselves are highly constrained in what they can personally do to change the situation; to be able to pursue acceptable lives in the contexts that they are given, for example of limited and expensive public transport systems, cheap flights and expensive trains, poorly insulated housing and gas central heating, and food imported from Peru and India instead of the UK or Spain.

So, are few willing to make significant lifestyle changes?

As Jason Hickel points out on Twitter: “This is such a strange headline.  The lead finding of the survey is that 76% of people said they would accept stricter environmental rules and regulations. People are literally *begging* for governments to intervene.” The truth is that individual and institutional actions for the climate – behaviour change and system change – are interrelated in ways that the survey, and the story reporting it, do not examine or untangle. It is entirely consistent for people to be committed to protecting the environment, but also to agree that they:

  • “would accept stricter rules and environmental regulations” (76%);
  • “need more resources and equipment from public authorities” (69%);
  • “can’t financially afford to make these efforts” (60%); and
  • “lack information and guidance about what to do” (55%).

These are all views held at higher rates than the one which was turned into the headline about an unwillingness to change; that 46% “don’t think [they] really need to change [their] habits”. The more strongly held views above more accurately reflect that changing habits is almost impossible without strong government action, particularly to provide (funding for) appropriate and effective low-carbon alternatives. These latter views are what our participants’ deliberations revealed.

Deliberative research vs. surveys: support for strong government action

This same appetite for government action to drive behaviour change was found in a report by Demos on research funded by the National Grid and ScottishPower, which put policies from the Committee on Climate Change’s work to the public, and asked them to come up with a package of policies they most supported, to achieve the government’s 2030 carbon reduction targets. The most popular package included a carbon tax on industries, integrated public transport coordinated by local government, government, supermarkets and food companies promoting plant-based diets, a UK-wide electric vehicle charging network, raising flying costs, including frequent flier levies, and restrictions on cars entering city centres and a 60mph speed limit on motorways. All of these had between 82% and 94% public support.

The same levels of strong public support for strong government actions has been found by the Centre for Climate Change and Social Transformations (CAST), and by the Cambridge Commission on Sustainability, and the government’s own Nudge Unit published a blueprint for government actions required to achieve significant behaviour change for meeting Net Zero targets, including reducing car travel, and levies on meat and frequent flying.

The landscape of choice in everyday life

The discrepancies apparently found consistently between the public’s desires to protect the environment and their actions are therefore not always to be explained by a ‘value-action gap’, a straightforward ‘climate hypocrisy’, or a way of managing ‘cognitive dissonance’ simply by ignoring it. They can also be understood as reflecting the landscape or playing field of options and choice within which the huge array of different decisions and habits that make up ‘everyday life’ are made and followed.

Partly this is due to the majority of daily actions being habitual or unreflecting ‘practice’, rather than conscious behaviour, decisions and choice.

Partly it is because ‘decisions’ such as how to heat one’s house, travel to work or cook food to eat are 90+% pre-structured by a combination of: the geographies and timetables of home, work, and shops; the infrastructures of roads, gas and electricity, and; the devices and appliances of cars, boilers and cookers that are already in place in people’s lives.

Partly it is because decisions about those systems of housing, travel and utilities are being delivered as markets, which do not prioritise the basic needs of everyone across society, but the profits of shareholders.

Partly, it is because of the in-built maintenance of the dominant systems and incumbent socio-technical ‘regimes’ that results from seeing ‘what people (have to) do’ as ‘revealed demand’ for more of the same. Consent for existing systems is assumed to be ‘revealed’ in market transactions, whereas such transactions may by largely unavoidable by individuals.

And partly it is because our lives are saturated by media messages and advertising that assert that a ‘good life’ means a larger house, a bigger screen, a flashier car, a better-paying job, more exotic and far-flung holidays and getaway experiences, ideally ending with a retirement of foreign cruises and a place in the sun.

The buck stops here

In short, it is because capitalism is the operating system of society, and because governments are not focussed on providing for the needs of life within the limits of a liveable planet – on sustainable development, in other words – but on sustaining ‘development’; narrowly understood as economic growth, at all costs.

In my PhD thesis back at the turn of the century I pointed out that the discourses then circulating about climate change as a ‘collective responsibility’ could mean that seeing it as everyone’s responsibility could mean that it was also effectively no-one’s. Always being able to point the finger at others’ lack of action means always being able to shift responsibility and pass the buck. Instead, we need to acknowledge that the government is the only institution that has the agency to effectively shape and structure the infrastructures and systems of provision, the contents of the market, and the landscape of behaviour and choice that determines what is up for realistic change in everyday life. ‘Going with the grain of consumer choice’ is not going to cut the mustard.