How behavioural change is needed to meet climate targets

In order to reach carbon reduction targets by 2050, there needs to be a change in the public’s behaviour when it comes to the consumption of food and clothes and modes of transport used.

That is the stark warning of the government’s chief environmental scientist, Pro Sir Ian Boyd, who has outlined the challenges faced in pursuit of net-zero emissions within the next three decades.

Importing red meat and cheap clothes and things like flying abroad will need to be kept in check, he argues, if the United Kingdom is to take the lead in tackling climate change.

In support of this argument, research has shown that providing free transport passes or bike rentals can encourage mode shifts by interrupting entrenched habits.

In an interview with BBC News, Sir Ian stated strong persuasive political leadership – and taxation on bad behaviours – was needed in order to get everyone aligned towards the same goal.

Consumption out of control

“We like to consume things, but the more we consume the more we absorb the resources of the planet,” he said.

“That means we have to grow those resources or we have to mine them – and in doing that we generate waste. And consumption is going up all the time.

“(There’s) a conundrum – how do we shift ourselves from consuming? We need to do more about learning to live sustainably. We talk about sustainability but we don’t really know what it means.

“We need to make major technological advances in the way we use and reuse materials but we (also) need to reduce demand overall – and that means we need to change our behaviours and change our lifestyles.

The graph below from the BEIS (2019) gives a very good idea of where we are, and where we need to be, in terms of our lifestyle. A combination of all aspects will need to change/decrease as we get closer to net zero.

As well as changing behaviour, changes in the technology we use in everyday life can help. For example, using hydrogen instead of gas central heating.

Another key area in order to meet the 2050 targets is to reduce energy demand from the buildings we live and work in. The 27 million dwellings and 2 million non-domestic buildings in the UK are responsible for 43% of the total of the UK’s energy use and 29% of the UK’s Co2 emissions (Committee on climate change, 2018).

Government intervention

The government has a large number of policy options to choose between to support behaviour change and encourage a low-carbon lifestyle. As well as pushing behaviour change, taxation can play a part in showing people what is socially acceptable or not. Another way government can encourage behaviour change is to incentivise regional or local government to take appropriate actions.

“It will very rarely come down to a direct message like ‘sorry, you can’t buy that but you can buy this’. But there will be stronger messages within the (tax) system that make one thing more attractive than the other,” Sir Ian pointed out.

Urgent action

Until recently, Sir Ian worked for Defra, who, when contacted by the BBC, made the following statement:

“The impact of climate change is clear and demands urgent action from countries around the world. The UK has already shown global leadership by becoming the first major economy to legislate for net zero emissions by 2050 – but we know there is more to do.

“That’s why we’re reforming farming policy to reward environmental actions, reviewing our food system to ensure it is more sustainable, taking steps to accelerate tree-planting and peatland restoration, and introducing a flagship Environment Bill to address the biggest environmental priorities of our age.”