What are the common-sense solutions to our climate and nature crises?
In this guest post from geographer and energy specialist Neil Kitching (above), author of the new book Carbon Choices, Neil considers a few tips on how to influence behaviour change.
Firstly, we need to consider our carbon intensive lifestyles. Our emissions can be divided into three categories.
- Emissions that new technology can tackle with little impact on our behaviour such as electric cars and the change from burning coal to renewable sources to generate our electricity. These are the easy emissions to tackle.
- Emissions that inevitably result from the physical infrastructure which society has built over decades and from the financial structure of subsidies and taxes which government places on goods and services. (For example, building out of town shopping centres inevitably leads to more road traffic. In effect the system and the available infrastructure constrain our choices. It takes time, normally decades to change these.)
- Emissions where our individual choices can make an immediate difference. (For example, we can choose what goods we buy, what diet we eat and whether to fly long distances although we are influenced by peer pressure. In these areas, behaviour change and psychology are important.)
Do nudges work?
‘Nudge’ theory suggests that small changes in the physical environment can influence behaviour. Supermarkets are in a powerful position to nudge us towards making more environmentally friendly purchases.
Through so called ‘choice editing’, supermarkets choose to highlight and promote certain products over others.
They like to place sweets at checkouts to encourage impulse purchases.
But vegetarian dishes or organic chicken could also be placed favourably versus factory farmed chicken.
However, nudges are unlikely to be powerful enough alone to persuade us to make substantial changes. We need to go further.
Editing out choices
Beef, mutton and dairy products have a disproportionate environmental and climate impact yet despite years of campaigning the growth of veganism is slow – there are too many cultural hurdles to overcome.
People have strong views on the matter. At workplace conferences the default is to serve a meat based main meal unless somebody requests a vegetarian dish.
However, from my own experience, at the Scottish Environmental Awards everyone was served a vegetarian dish unless they had specifically requested a meat-based dish.
Not only did this reduce the amount of meat consumed, it also initiated conversations around vegetarianism and veganism.
Keeping up with the neighbours
Observing and speaking with your neighbours can also be a powerful force for action.
In California, a study of the spread of roof-top solar panels found that the strongest factor was whether someone else in your street had already installed them.
It was not important whether you were a Democrat, or a Republican with a higher likelihood of climate change scepticism.
Talking to your neighbours was more powerful than any preconceived attitudes.
The shame game
Another change happening is reduction in flying in some countries due to ‘flight shaming’.
The impact of Greta Thunberg, the young Swedish climate change activist, reversed the long-term growth in the number of flights taken.
Passenger numbers through Swedish airports fell by 4% in 2019, even before the impact of Covid-19.
Peer pressure and ‘keeping up with the neighbours’ are powerful forces.
On-line bloggers or ‘influencers’ make money by wielding this power. Right now though, most are paid to promote short-life fashion items.
Could we reverse this towards frugal consumption or consumption that will enhance our real quality of life – towards investing in high quality, long-lasting goods or triple glazing and solar panels for your house, for example?
We need to use all the skills and techniques that marketing people have developed and perfected over the last hundred years to successfully persuade us to buy more, bigger, faster, newer, fashionable – but instead to purchase fewer, better quality, compact and functional, useful and meaningful, and long lasting possessions.
This concept is already being led by campaigners such as Ellen MacArthur, who gained the world record for the fastest solo circumnavigation of the globe in 2005.
On that voyage she realised that the world is finite and learnt to minimise her use of resources.
Subsequently, she went on to found the Ellen MacArthur foundation to support the ‘circular economy’ principles of designing out waste, keeping products in use and to regenerate natural systems.
Amidst all the bad news, these small-scale initiatives demonstrate that there are grounds for hope. My popular science book concludes with a green action plan for government, business and individuals to make better Carbon Choices.
Carbon Choices can be bought on Amazon or direct from the author at www.carbonchoices.uk