OPINION: Shifting human behaviour is a massive opportunity to fight the climate crisis

by Mindy Hernandez | World Resources Institute
Tuesday, 5 April 2022 12:25 GMT

Customers and staff are seen at a vegan restaurant in Paris, January 29, 2018. REUTERS/Philippe Wojazer

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Governments and other institutions must make it as easy as possible for people to adopt greener, healthier lifestyles

By Mindy Hernandez

The newest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) underscores that when it comes to preventing the most dangerous climate impacts, the world is falling short and time is running out - yet we continue to ignore one of the biggest opportunities we have to reduce emissions. 

What is new and hopeful is that for the first time, the IPCC has underlined the importance and potential of behaviour change to “make a major difference” in emission reductions. Specifically, by 2050, the IPCC finds, “lifestyle changes” such as reducing meat consumption and improving household energy use could reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 40–70% compared to current policies. To put this in perspective, behaviour change could reduce emissions by the same amount as completely eliminating emissions from China, the U.S., India, the EU and Russia combined.

How has this massive opportunity gone unacknowledged until now? Behaviour change has too often focused on the individual, “nudging” households to take climate-friendly actions such as modifying their diets and using energy more efficiently. But it should not stop there. We must give governments and other institutions the tools to scale up the impact of these behaviour changes by making it as easy as possible for people to adopt them. 

Individual behaviour is shaped by the environments we live in. For example, biking to work in a congested city without bike lanes is not a viable option. Cutting meat consumption in a neighbourhood with few appetising vegetarian choices is unrealistic.

If we apply what science has taught us about what influences people’s behaviour, we can redesign our cities, workplaces and neighborhoods so that sustainable living is more accessible for everyone, especially communities that have been traditionally underserved but bear the brunt of environmental degradation. 

Fortunately, recent findings from World Resources Institute (WRI) reveal that changing human behaviour can shift individual actions with population-level implications. For example, social scientists have found that because people procrastinate on tasks that seem complicated or unclear, simplifying tasks makes behaviour change more likely. And we know that humans are social animals who compare ourselves with our peers and neighbors. 

In Bangalore, India, WRI India and TIDE, a local NGO, produced behaviourally designed household energy reports comparing a home’s energy use to that of neighbouring households. It also included specific, actionable recommendations to help bring down energy use and costs, such as switching off fans when you leave the room or investing in LED bulbs. Receiving these reports decreased energy use by an average of 7%. This may not seem like a lot, but if expanded to the entire city of Bangalore, 604 million kilowatts of energy a year would be avoided, and households would save almost $60 million per year.

REMOVING BARRIERS

Research has also shown that changing menu language to describe vegetarian dishes in more indulgent terms (think “hearty”, “slow-roasted”, or “creamy”) led to significant increase in diners picking vegetarian meals. This is critical because shifting our eating habits toward less meat is necessary for addressing the climate crisis. 

As anyone who has ever made a New Year’s resolution knows, just wanting to change is rarely enough. We need to remove historical and structural barriers and make changes easier for everyone. Access to energy-efficient products should be priced so that everyone has access. Shifting toward plant-based foods should be feasible for all, which means working to get fresh, affordable produce and meat alternatives to markets in every neighborhood.

Equitable climate action also requires acknowledging that high-income countries and communities must do more. The world’s wealthiest households - those whose income falls within the top tenth percentile - emit 34-45% of the world’s greenhouse gases, while families earning incomes within the bottom 50% account for just 13-15% of these releases.

Increasing energy efficiency in growing, emerging economies like India is critical, but we also must recognise that significant portions of the population still lack - and need - access to reliable electricity. And although people around the world need access to more protein, including meat, if the world’s biggest consumers of meat ate just 40% less meat, the planet would cut 168 billion tons of GHG emissions, which is three times the total global emissions in 2009. Moreover, it would  free up significant amounts of land - possibly enabling the world to feed 10 billion people by 2050 without agriculture further expanding into forests.

As the last two years of the pandemic have shown us, if we try to tackle existential threats to humanity without tackling human behaviour, we will come up short in grievous ways. But we’ve also learned that dramatically changing human behaviour on a planetary scale is possible.

Some of that work may begin with a focus on the individual, but our end goal should be bigger - to push for neighbourhoods, workplaces, industry practices and policies that make it easier for people to live healthier, greener and more equitable lives.

Mindy Hernandez leads WRI's Living Lab for Equitable Climate Action. She is an applied behavioural researcher focusing on pro-social behaviors like energy conservation, voting, and medication adherence.