This blog post was published under the 2015 to 2024 Conservative government

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Kate Robinson

Science and Innovation Advisor, British Embassy Berlin

Part of Global Science and Innovation Network

2nd August 2023 Berlin, Germany

Light bulbs, defrosted freezers and heat pumps: how to support energy-saving behaviours in the home

Lessons from a science-policy roundtable

The messages in the latest IPCC report on climate change are sobering, to say the least: human activities have caused the planet to warm by 1.1°C, causing widespread damage to both people and nature. We are all familiar with the narrative by now: there are low-cost options for mitigating and adapting to climate change, the necessary innovation is available, and shifting to cleaner technologies has never been more affordable. The IPCC has been emphasising this for years. Yet with each report, the situation appears bleaker, and the need for action more pressing.

Many reasons exist for the slow progress. They are complex, interconnected, and often frustrating. One significant factor is human behaviour. According to the UK’s Climate Change Committee, over 60% of the necessary emissions reductions in the coming decades will require some form of behaviour change. So while the technology is largely available, it is up to humans to adopt it, install it, maintain it, and use it less, or preferably not at all when it comes to fossil-based options.

So, how do we encourage and support people to make more sustainable choices? What types of behaviour are most effective in helping us achieve our climate goals, and what are the barriers to change? 

These were the guiding questions behind a 2-day science-policy roundtable convened by the UK Science and Innovation Network, together with the Swedish Climate Policy Council, the Dutch Ministry for Economic Affairs and Climate Policy, and the behavioural science consultancy Behaven. Leading scientists, policymakers, and experts from across Europe explored tools and methods, shared approaches, and discussed barriers and interventions for driving more sustainable behaviours towards a net-zero emissions world. Here is a summary of what was discussed.

Where do we begin?

Human activities such as how we travel, our energy use, our food, industrial processes, and what we wear all contribute to emissions. This means we can and must intervene from a variety of angles. However, in order to design effective and targeted behavioural interventions, we need to first specify which behaviours to support. Given the significant contribution of residential buildings to greenhouse gas emissions, as well as the current energy security context, the focus of this roundtable was narrowed down to energy-saving behaviours in homes. Even with this narrower focus, however, a wide range of desirable actions are possible, from turning down the thermostat to installing double-glazing, maintaining appliances, or purchasing a heat pump. To help bring some order to the chaos of options, it can help to divide them into categories:

  1. ‘Curtailment behaviours’ — (repeated) efforts without any financial investment, such as turning off electronic devices, or unplugging appliances
  1. ‘Maintenance behaviours’ —  keeping household appliances in good working order, usually seasonally, such as dusting and cleaning light fixtures or bleeding heaters before winter
  1. ‘Investment behaviours’ —  short-term investments, such as purchasing LED light bulbs, and larger, structural improvements, such as house repairs and upgrades

Before diving into solutions, first understand the barriers

Having identified the behaviours we want to encourage, it’s tempting to jump straight to solutions. Running a TV commercial with a politician demonstrating how to turn down the radiator may, for example, initially appear to be a good idea. But upon examination, the problem may not be a lack of understanding of how to adjust heating settings. It’s more likely that there are other barriers preventing the desired behaviour, and it is important to take the time to understand these.

During the roundtable, participants utilised the COM-B model to help organise their insights. The central principle of this model is that for any behaviour to occur:

  1. People must have the CAPABILITY to do it — the physical strength, knowledge, skills, stamina etc
  1. There must be the OPPORTUNITY for the behaviour to occur —  it must be physically accessible, affordable, socially acceptable and there must be sufficient time
  1. There must be enough MOTIVATION — people must be more motivated to do the target behaviour at the relevant time than not

When applied to the previously discussed curtailment, maintenance, and investment behaviours, this model reveals a plethora of barriers. Capability barriers included both psychological factors, such as a lack of knowledge about appliance settings, and physical ones, such as a lack of strength to perform necessary maintenance tasks. Opportunity barriers ranged from a tenant living in a building where they have no control over heating installations to people lacking the time or financial resources to purchase new energy efficient appliances. Motivational barriers included the belief that the costs outweigh the benefits, or a simple preference for the ease of doing what we’ve always done. It is worth noting that during the discussions among experts from various countries, some barriers appeared to be cross-cultural in nature, while others appeared to be country-specific. This demonstrates the limits of simply replicating a strategy that has worked in one context without first understanding the specific context of another.

Time to design

Armed with knowledge about the behaviours we aim to change, and the barriers to these, we can now begin designing targeted interventions. The possibilities for interventions are, again, vast. Ideas ranged from providing financial incentives for maintenance work and incorporating visual prompts on appliances, to investing in training programmes for skilled labour to install equipment. It was even floated that maintenance or healthcare workers be trained to provide advice on energy-efficient home usage. Interventions varied from those as simple as a sticker on the appliance to as complex as incorporating messaging into a Netflix drama series. The key point though was that interventions should address the actual barriers that people face when trying to change their behaviour.

What could possibly go wrong?

Even with the most careful preparation and the best intentions, an intervention may still fail to produce the desired results. It could even have the opposite effect. The concept of rebound effects was one of the most hotly debated topics during the roundtable: the concern that by increasing appliance efficiency and lowering operating costs, people could end up using the appliances more, cancelling out any initial emissions reductions. The impact of the rebound effect and the best way to deal with it were debated. However, the importance of monitoring, iterating, or even discontinuing an intervention met with consensus, as did the warning that interventions can have unintended consequences.

An ongoing conversation

In the spirit of learning and iteration, the hope is that policymakers and experts who participated in the roundtable can now test the methodologies and approaches discussed, and continue to share feedback, failures, and successes with one another. This exchange of knowledge can help us avoid repeating the same mistakes in different locations, and accelerate the learning and implementation of effective strategies towards our net-zero goals. Energy-saving in homes is also just one piece of a much larger puzzle. Similar conversations need to take place across all sectors, addressing mobility behaviours, food habits, and more. If you’re interested in joining this ongoing exploration or learning more about the insights mentioned above, please feel free to get in touch. We would love to hear from you!

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About Kate Robinson

Advisor on Science and Innovation topics at the British Embassy Berlin, with a focus on climate, energy and environment topics. As part of the UK Government Science & Innovation Network…

Advisor on Science and Innovation topics at the British Embassy Berlin, with a focus on climate, energy and environment topics.

As part of the UK Government Science & Innovation Network (SIN), co-led by the FCDO and DSIT, we support collaboration between UK and German Government departments, Research Funders, Academics and Innovators.

My background is in climate innovation and in science-policy, having worked previously for the EU’s Climate Innovation initiative – EIT Climate KIC – and as an advisor on research, innovation and climate policy to an MEP in the European Parliament.