What are the behaviour changes needed to achieve net zero?

A government paper, now unpublished, explores a number of recommendations

Default ethical pensions, carbon taxes and impact reporting were among a number of recommendations presented to the UK government as it published its net-zero strategy.

In a paper Net Zero: principles for successful behaviour change initiatives, the government’s Behavioural Insights Team – or Nudge Unit – outlined a series of recommendations for actions that could change behaviour and help the UK meet its net-zero target by 2050.

The government published its net-zero strategy on Wednesday, detailing its roadmap towards sustainable financing in three phases: informing investors and consumers, creating expectations and requirements and shifting financial flows. It aims to secure £90bn of private investment by 2030 and said the commitments will support 440,000 jobs in green industries by 2030.

The Behavioural Insights paper has now been removed from the government website with the government stating it will not “dictate” behaviour and highlighted it was research, not government policy.

Looking at the key highlights, authors of the paper, Kristina Londakova, Toby Park, Jake Reynolds and Saul Wodak, said upstream actions such as aligning business, markets and intuitions with net zero were generally preferable for enabling low-carbon behaviours. However, they also made midstream recommendations that create an enabling environment and downstream recommendations to motivate citizens’ actions.

Here are some of the key suggestions from the paper:

Ethical defaults

The authors said it is worthwhile considering where individuals and organisations could be steered into climate friendly behaviours by default.

One example was placing people in to default “climate friendly ethical investment pension plans”. The paper also stated default energy tariffs could be mandated to have a high blend of renewables. Other suggestions were airline customers being defaulted into carbon offsets and plant-based food being the default choice in schools and government canteens and events.

Impact reporting

Using the example of how firms currently report on the gender pay gap, the Nudge Unit said such transparency can change company behaviour simply because they know their actions are being observed. It therefore suggested mandating “large or publicly traded firms to publish their environmental impacts” so they might behave in a more environmentally friendly way.

Carbon tax

Stronger carbon taxation across sectors including food, infrastructure and aviation was called an “obvious solution”.

Alongside carbon taxation, the paper stated steeper differentiation between decarbonisation efforts of airlines would be an effective incentive. For food, a suggestion was made for something akin to the sugar levy but based on emissions per portion.

Similarly, a carbon levy on builders and materials manufacturers could drive “reformulation” of concrete, steel, glazing and other high-carbon products, the authors stated.

Rating retailers

The environmental performance of supermarkets could be “de-shrouded”, according to the report, so market competition could be aligned with net zero. Noting most consumers have a choice of various brands but have little information on each brand’s environmental performance, the authors said: “A rating system would shift a minority of consumers, triggering competition between retailers, reducing the carbon intensity of the average shopping basket for all.”

Targeting aviation

Being a high-carbon activity set to grow by 700% by 2050 in the UK, a number of suggestions were made for reducing the environmental impact of flying.

From the upstream perspective, the report said the government could “lead by example, and recognise the hugely impactful signal it sends to, for example, approve airport expansions, or financially support the airline industry with little demands for decarbonisation in return”.

Further downstream, promoting domestic tourism and a penalty for those flying frequently for business could be introduced.

EV example

There is an opportunity to lead by example, the authors said, when it comes to electrifying all vehicles under government regulation, for example police, Highways England, buses and taxis.

“Given how visible vehicles are, and the direct experience we tend to have with them (e.g. we take a taxi), electrifying public vehicle fleets could have outsize signalling and normalising benefits (compared to say, decarbonising buildings in the public estate),” the report stated.

Where cost is a limiting factor for electric vehicle take up, the authors advised, the government should continue providing generous subsidies.