Can Behavioural Change Solve Our Emissions Dilemma?

Feb 27, 2018

A lot of hot air has been spouted about “behavioural change” over the last year, as if it will somehow magically solve our emissions dilemma. As energy managers we understand the need to balance technological, management and people solutions in equal measure to achieve optimum energy savings. Some have referred to our role as being equivalent to “energy psychologists”. This is especially true so for transport fleets where it is the drivers who influence our fuel performance on a daily basis.

Dr. Charlie Wilson of the University of East Anglia’s Tyndall Centre for Climate Change recently reviewed The Clean Growth Strategy (Oct’17) for the UK. This document, which is perhaps equivalent to Ireland’s National Mitigation Plan (Jul’17), referred to 258 technology solutions, 218 cost savings and only 9 behaviour related aspects to move to a low carbon future. Why as a society do we naturally focus on the techno-economic solutions rather than on what motivates people to do things differently? Interestingly, our National Mitigation Plan has the word behaviour 72 times, so maybe we Irish know there is something important here. The Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland (SEAI), for instance, created a new Behavioural Economics Unit last year which is measuring the impact of different approaches in communicating with people with regard to home renovation and energy efficiency in businesses.

I like Dr. Wilson’s definition of behaviour which for me distils what it is all about. If I may paraphrase Dr. Wilson (I hope correctly): emissions savings from behaviour are residual, that is, it’s what’s left when you have done all the other technical and management focused solutions. It is heterogeneous, hard to quantify, unpredictable and politically problematic. Hence we naturally tend to gravitate to technophilia, with the installing of LED lighting or switching to electric vehicles, etc. Humans only change when something does not work for them. Or perhaps we like to follow fashion – think of the social influence on the cars we buy, for example. But by carefully nudging people into the right mind space, there is a deep resource of emissions savings to be tapped. And – for business – the good news is that these emission savings equate directly to cost savings.

Raoul Empey

Raoul Empey

Raoul is director of Sustineo, a leading Irish sustainability consultancy that provides solutions for businesses to reduce their impact on the environment. He also delivers Climate Action workshops on topics such as net zero targets and carbon offsets.