Centre of Climate Change and Social Transformation (CAST) director Prof. Lorraine Whitmarsh talks about the societal shift required to tackle climate change. Compared to only focussing on the environmental benefits of changing behaviour, promoting the co-benefits is more likely to motivate individuals and organisations to change their practices to become low-carbon.
The latest scientific evidence highlights the urgency of tackling climate change. We have around a decade to make major cuts in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions if we want to avoid the most dangerous impacts of climate change.
Transport accounts for over a quarter of the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions, and despite progress in decarbonising other sectors, emissions from transport are actually rising.
Most travel in the UK is done by car, and this has changed little in recent years. This is despite growing concern amongst the UK public about climate change, and broad acceptance that we should change our lifestyles to tackle the climate emergency.
Avoiding driving, in particular, is one of the best things individuals can do to reduce their carbon footprint.
Choosing more active forms of transport (i.e., walking and cycling) also has important ‘co-benefits’, such as for health - by reducing air pollution in cities, and increasing physical activity – as well as boosting mood and saving money.
In our increasingly congested cities, travelling by bike is also often quicker and more convenient than driving.
In the new UK Centre for Climate Change and Social Transformations (CAST), we believe that promoting these kind of co-benefits is more likely to motivate individuals and organisations to change their practices to become low-carbon, compared to only focussing on the environmental benefits.
Using interventions to persuade change
Key to tackling climate change is understanding what’s important to people – for example, wellbeing, children’s health, lower bills, convenience – and designing policies and interventions that achieve these goals, as well as radically cutting emissions.
Interventions to encourage low-carbon travel behaviours can encompass ‘downstream’ interventions. This will target individuals’ decision-making (usually through informational approaches) – and ‘upstream’ interventions – which target the context in which people act (through economic measures, such as road charges; planning and infrastructural measures, such as providing cycle paths; and broader educational and institutional measures to change societal values).
The most effective schemes, including those led by Sustrans, usually incorporate both kinds of intervention – to persuade and also enable people to change.
Choosing active methods of travel, such as walking and cycling, has many benefits.
Information alone is usually not effective to change behaviour, particularly travel choices, which are strongly influenced by the physical environment (e.g., where we live and work, presence of walkable or cyclable routes).
On the other hand, information and citizen engagement is critical to provide a political mandate for investing in low-carbon alternatives and removing polluting options, and for raising public awareness about the environmental and multiple co-benefits of low-carbon travel choices.
But while it is important to think about how to intervene, it is also critical to consider when. Habits are a major barrier to behaviour change, particularly for everyday actions, like commuting or taking children to school.
When we leave the house in the morning, we don’t usually weigh up different options for getting to work or school; we just use the same mode and route that we always use in that situation.
Habits develop when we repeat the same action regularly in the same time, place or social situation. The action then becomes an automatic response to a cue (e.g., leaving the house on a weekday morning), rather than the outcome of conscious deliberation.
In the presence of strong habits, information about alternative actions tends to be ignored – which makes breaking habits difficult.
However, when habits are ‘disrupted’, this provides a window of opportunity to intervene and change people’s choices.
Interventions targeted to these ‘moments of change’ – which could include relocation, starting a new job, retirement, childbirth, major road/rail disruption, floods and so on – tend to be much more effective than when applied to stable routines.
For example, an intervention to encourage public transport use (specifically, bus service information and a one-day free bus pass) doubled bus use amongst residents who had recently moved house; but the same intervention was ineffective amongst residents who had not recently moved.
Growing evidence points to the timing of interventions being critical for their efficacy. This is why in the CAST Centre, we will be identifying which moments of change – such as residential or workplace relocation – are most promising for encouraging low-carbon habits - including travel habits. We will then work with partners, such as city councils, to co-design and evaluate interventions that target these moments of change.
We will use these opportunities to promote the co-benefits of active and public transport and to incentivise and enable habit change.
We hope that this will enable us to take a significant step towards the societal shift needed to tackle climate change, as well as improve people’s lives in other important ways.