Attendees look at solar panels on display during the Intersolar North America Conference in San Francisco
Greener living: consumer decisions, such as switching to renewable energy, can help countries reach net zero targets © Paul Morris/Bloomberg

Lifestyle and behavioural changes could help cut emissions significantly by the end of the century, climate scientists agree. Yet people are still not willing to alter their habits sufficiently to reach a target of net zero carbon emissions by 2050, according to the International Energy Agency.

“Having the right policies, infrastructure and technology in place to enable changes to our lifestyles and behaviour can result in a 40-70 per cent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050,” said Professor Priyadarshi Shukla from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in April last year.

It has arguably been easier for governments, and businesses, to focus on tackling climate change through technology — such as a shift to electric vehicles — than to implement policies that would help individuals make greener lifestyle choices.

Adam Corner, an independent researcher focused on climate communication, believes the problem is that governments — at least in highly polluting, western countries — tend to be reluctant to interfere too closely in people’s lives.

“Behaviour change was the poor relation of climate policy for a long time,” observes Corner. He blames both sides of the political spectrum for “piecemeal” policies: “The right sees behaviour change policies as too ‘nanny state’,” he says, while on the left there is fear that such policies move the focus away from the biggest institutional polluters.

Corner feels such concerns are unwarranted, however. “People would support behaviour change policies if they were sure what was being asked of them was fair and it was clear governments were not just trying to shift the blame on to consumers,” he argues.

The Covid pandemic, and the energy crisis triggered by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and subsequent decision to cut gas supplies to Europe, have already forced governments to stray further into voters’ lives and demand radical lifestyle shifts.

And many environmental experts suggest that lessons from the pandemic could speed up climate action.

“Covid-19 established a precedent for rapid and deep behaviour change,” wrote Andrew Norton early last year, while he was director of the UK-based International Institute for Environment and Development.

But Corner points out that climate change does not elicit the same kind of “immediate dread and fear” as a pandemic. Extreme weather events, such as last summer’s heatwave in western Europe, are a good moment to convey the urgency of behavioural change, he acknowledges, although different framing, not based on scaremongering, would be his preferred starting point.

“Behavioural change isn’t about fear, but about building a sense of collective agency,” Corner says.

Consistency of message is also vital if people are going to act differently, says Lorenzo Fioramonti, professor at the University of Surrey and a former Italian education minister. “Behavioural change is complex and policies are contradictory. We expect people to eat more responsibly, but we make junk food cheaper. We expect people to produce more sustainably, but provide tax cuts to polluters.”

Change happens when “culture, incentives and sanctions” align, says Fioramonti. To achieve this, he thinks schools and universities should teach students a new cultural message, which prioritises wellbeing and purpose over profit.

At the same time, governments should introduce coherent fiscal reform, he believes, to reward “purpose-driven businesses that pursue wellbeing” through, for example, tax cuts and easy access to credit. Policies would be based on wellbeing indicators measuring, for instance, standard of living, educational attainment, and life expectancy, instead of simply GDP, he adds.

A wrong-headed understanding of “freedom” in western countries is part of the reason for a lack of progress on behavioural change, says Emma Garnett, a researcher at the University of Oxford. Freedom, in many countries, has become synonymous with rightwing, free-market policies, she notes.

Plans to introduce more cycle paths, low-emission zones and car-free streets in cities to reduce emissions are often vehemently opposed as restrictions on freedom, despite the opportunities they offer, Garnett points out.

Conversely, citizens tend to see it as their right to have ever bigger, heavier cars to drive, despite the fact that these cause “more congestion, use of resources, [and] pollution . . . in cities,” she observes.

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Large, electric SUVs may reduce tailpipe emissions, but will do nothing to reduce these other problems, she says. A 2020 study by the University of Toronto concluded that electrification was “not a silver bullet” to cut transport emissions, underlining the need for “a wide range of policies combined with a willingness to drive less with lighter, more efficient vehicles”.

“We have a world where behaviours that pollute are seen as progress and those that don’t are viewed as weird and niche,” says Garnett. “This is back to front.”

Policymakers also need to make life simple for people, she suggests. “We need policies that make healthy, low-carbon options the easiest and cheapest options. Sustainable options should mean going with the flow and not feeling like you are desperately swimming upstream.”

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