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Encouraging behaviour change
The huge importance of user choice and behaviour is recognised in the government’s net-zero strategy, ‘Build back greener’.
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Net-zero habits

Many of the challenges the world faces, including the transition to net-zero carbon, require people to change their behaviour and habits. At the heart of this lies the need to understand their choices and motivations, writes Suzy Sharpe.

Use less energy and water, travel differently, reduce, reuse, recycle, insulate your home, change your diet. Becoming a net-zero emissions green citizen requires change on a scale rarely seen, and it needs to be sustained.

COP26, the international climate summit hosted by Glasgow in November, focused attention on the importance of cutting carbon emissions as far and as fast as possible. Getting you and me – users and consumers – to play our part is a key challenge and opportunity.

“Behaviour change plays a role in almost two thirds of emissions reductions,” said the Climate Change Committee (CCC) in ‘Progress in reducing emissions’, its June 2021 report to Parliament. “Most of this comes through consumer adoption of low-carbon technologies such as electric cars, but 8% of total emissions reductions come from directly changing practices such as reduced business flights.”

The CCC, which is the UK government’s statutory advisor on climate change, was summarising a point made by the International Energy Agency in its roadmap for the global energy sector, ‘Net zero by 2050’. The huge importance of user choice and behaviour was subsequently recognised in the government’s net-zero strategy, ‘Build back greener’, published in October 2021. “The rollout of low-carbon solutions relies on positive public reception and demand to adopt them. Consumers need to have access to the right technologies, understand their benefits, and have confidence [to] use them.”

No mean challenge

Why do people behave as they do, and what are their views on changing their behaviours? Large-scale surveys are common but can fail to answer these questions. Focus groups and observations – activities that major projects often overlook – can yield richer information faster and at less cost, informing solutions that will result in changed use patterns, attitudes and expectations.

The risks of making assumptions, rather than investigating people’s behaviour by asking them directly, are illustrated by an active travel project undertaken in one of the UK’s major cities.

The aim of the project was to significantly increase cycling as a proportion of urban journeys. Using quantitative data from annual travel surveys, the city authority identified interventions it hoped would encourage a modal shift from car to bicycle. It invested in segregated cycle lanes, cycle parking and cycle lockers. But travel patterns didn’t change.

A short, carefully targeted programme of focus groups explored why. Rich qualitative data revealed people’s perceived blockers and enablers. There were safety concerns where cycle lanes integrated with traffic; people didn’t know about available cycling facilities; many thought cycle storage was poorly located and insecure; help such as cycle training was provided in the wrong places and at the wrong times. Insights resulted in a new public engagement campaign about routes and resources. Its success in raising awareness was reflected in better take-up of introductory and refresher cycling proficiency courses and an increased number of bike journeys.

The experience showed that however good cycle infrastructure may be, success or failure lies with people and their choices, which must be accounted for in any project. The right time to do that is at the start.

From encouragement to enforcement

Some behaviours supporting carbon reduction may be adopted willingly because they make people’s lives easier or healthier – for example, reducing travel to work because it is convenient to work from home on some days; or making journeys by foot or bicycle as a way of building exercise into daily routines. It looks like COVID-19 may have resulted in a lasting shift towards home working. It has been enabled by the forced adoption of digital technologies during successive lockdowns, illustrating the importance of equipping and empowering people, and giving them permission to do things differently.

Information plays a vital role too, as shown by the Moata Safeswim service provided in Auckland, New Zealand. Safeswim provides Aucklanders with information in real time about water quality in the harbour and at popular beaches along the coast. It draws together data on rainfall, wastewater flows in the city’s sewer system, and any sewer overflows that would result in water pollution. Although citizens would prefer for there to be no overflow incidents at all, they do appreciate knowing when it is safe to swim. And the city council has found Safeswim useful for showing the need for sewer upgrades – improving acceptance of higher bills to fund the work, and of related disruption. Community groups have even used Safeswim information to make the case for initiating sewer and wastewater treatment upgrades.

It is reasonable to expect that ongoing digital innovation will make more and better information available to people and businesses, empowering them to make better decisions, including those affecting carbon emissions. Smart electricity and water meters are already starting to do this.

Yet other behaviours may need to be encouraged through the way the built environment, products and services are designed, or using economic measures – by making it easier to take public transport, cycle or walk than to drive, and by charging for private vehicles to enter designated zones and for parking (and recycling the revenue back into supporting the transition). Yet others may have to be forced through legislation.

Whether the approach to behaviour change involves enabling, informing, guiding or requiring, a key is to take a people-centred approach. It is vitally important to understand people’s choices and motivations: to shape strategies that will have the greatest chance of success in aligning behaviours with net-zero; and recognising the power of people’s desire for climate action to shape and drive change in the way buildings and infrastructure is delivered and managed.

Engineering, education and enforcement

Behavioural change is a science with proven methods. Individual and societal motivations, opportunities and capabilities push and pull a person to behave in a certain way. Behavioural scientists map those influencing and controlling factors to establish a basis for designing interventions to bring about change.

Interventions must address one or more root causes of a person’s behaviour – their motivations, capabilities and opportunities. Behavioural scientists refer to three categories of intervention: engineering (altering physical environments, objects and processes), education (providing information and explanation), and enforcement (rules and penalties). Engineering and education are well-designed ‘nudges’. Enforcement is a ‘shove’.

Whether nudging or shoving, it is important to make interventions easy, attractive, social and timely (EAST for short). Easy and attractive are an important pairing. People won’t necessarily choose what’s easiest if it is unattractive, or what is attractive if it’s not easy. But put the two together and behaviours start to change.

People like to know they’re not alone, so the social dimension of showing that others are changing their behaviour too is important; people also like to know how they compare with others.

And timeliness is important. People want and need to understand why they are being asked to make the change now, the time period within which change needs to be accomplished, and the duration of any inconvenience. They also appreciate control, which makes real-time information that can be used for decision-making invaluable.

Global carbon emissions must be reduced to net-zero by 2050. Measured in the lifespan of buildings and infrastructure, that is a very short timescale. But three decades provide ample time to radically change human behaviours. Engineers and behavioural scientists need to collaborate better to provide people with the motivation, capability and opportunity to do so.

They need to find the right balance between engineering, education and enforcement. And make every step of the journey to net-zero carbon EAST.

Suzy Sharpe

Principal human factors consultant, Mott MacDonald

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