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

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Mikael Allan Mikaelsson

PhD, Science and Innovation Policy Advisor, Europe Lead on Net-Zero Innovation & Climate Change

16th June 2022 Stockholm, Sweden

Bridging the behavioural science-policy gap for a net-zero society

Meeting our net-zero targets will require greater public engagement and a significant shift in behaviour, including rapid and widespread adoption of new low-carbon technology and a considerable reduction in the consumption of carbon-intensive commodities and services. This message was clear from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Special Report, as all of the different pathways to meet 1.5°C goal outlined by the report assume substantial demand-side mitigation, including behavioural and lifestyle changes.

The evidence is clear: behavioural change needs to be a cornerstone of our response to the climate threat. Since the publication of IPCC’s Special Report on 1.5°C, the evidence base on the need for such demand-side measures to deliver a net-zero world by 2050 has only grown in scope, as the IPCC’s most recent 6th Assessment Report (from Working Group 3) underscored that many of the same sectors that comprise some of the largest shares of global CO2 emissions are the same sectors where policies and measures focusing on end-use would bring about the greatest emission reductions. As such, in absence of a substantial change in public and organisational behaviours towards sustainability, the goals of the Paris Agreement are at risk.

Increasing urgency of action

As mentioned above, it is critical that we move the needle on bringing down consumption-based emission in order to achieve our long-term objective of reaching net zero by 2050. However, more recent economic and geopolitical factors, acting in concert, have brought a new sense of urgency to address unsustainable consumption in the more near term. The global oil and gas sector has for instance seen a heightened level of divestment in recent years, due to calls from political leaders, the financial sector and civil society. At the same time, the resulting imminent decline in oil and gas supply has not been matched by a decline in demand for them – causing serious near-term implications for energy (and wider commodity) security. Moreover, the Ukraine-Russia conflict has exacerbated this supply-demand mismatch even further due to international sanctions of Russian oil and gas exports. Changes in behaviour and consumption can partly bridge this gap.

Although behaviour change may be a contentious subject within the political realms, the fact of the matter is that behaviour change is inevitable as a result of climate change. The question is whether we voluntarily make these changes to enable the transition to a net zero world and stave off the worst impact of global heating, or whether behavioural change will be forced on us as the changing climate undermines the ecosystem that we rely on to sustain our way of life.

European Roundtable on the Role of Behaviour for Net-Zero

Governments across Europe have begun to explore policy options to reduce consumption-based emissions through demand-side solutions. This includes individual behaviour change, where Sweden is leading the charge with the world’s first consumption-based emission target. Demand-side policies and measures will be instrumental to define the pathways towards meeting such consumption-based targets. Yet, the evidence of adequate demand-side policies and measures, and the effectiveness of their application, remains limited. Therefore, it is of paramount importance that policy-makers, businesses and other practitioners come together to develop a better collective understanding of behavioural science and establish a strategic launch-pad for international collaboration to accelerate the transition to a net-zero society via sustainable behaviour of individuals and institutions.

That is why the UK Government’s Science & Innovation Network, the Dutch Ministry of Economic Affairs & Climate Policy and the Swedish Climate Policy Council jointly hosted the European Roundtable on the Role of Behaviour for Net-Zero on 3-4 May, in partnership with the behavioural expert consultancy Behaven. The meeting brought together over 50 policy-makers, academics, and representatives from industry and non-governmental organisations from across Europe to:

a) help design evidence-based policies and measures to encourage a behavioural and wider societal shift towards a sustainable consumption

b) shape challenge-driven research aligned with policy needs, and

c) establish a long-term platform for international public-private partnerships that will draw on both top-down governmental and non-governmental efforts and bottom-up community-led initiatives

The roundtable meeting focused on the three key sectors highlighted by the IPCC reports: mobility, energy and food/diet.

Key reflections

The roundtable highlighted the importance of timing, context and enabling environments, and fairness and accessibility. Since habits form a strong barrier to behaviour change, effective measures need to seize the windows of opportunities during moments of change when habits are weaker (eg mobility behaviour during the COVID19 pandemic). Timing matters. The social, cultural and political environment that surrounds the behaviour in question determines the context and enabling environment. Enabling environments are key to ensure that the desired behaviours are easy, accessible and affordable for people. Otherwise, the policies and measures designed to bring about these behaviours are likely to fail. Fairness and accessibility points to the importance of ensuring that policies and measures are inclusive, and for instance, do not pressurise or penalise groups of individuals for which the change of behaviour could be financially difficult. Fairness is therefore a predictor of policy acceptance.

The roundtable also discussed some of the high-impact behaviours across the mobility, food and energy sectors and some of the behavioural tools that have proven effective across policy and practice were summarised in a recent report published by Behaven based on the roundtable meeting.

Moving forward

In continuing partnership with the Dutch Ministry of Economic Affairs & Climate Policy and the Swedish Climate Policy Council, the UK Science & Innovation Network is therefore looking to build on the success of roundtable to co-develop a sustained platform for European partnerships. This will enable regular touchpoints between government, academia and industry actors, and sector-specific ‘implementation workshops’ to allow greater European collaborations across environmental behaviour related research, policy experimentation and up-scaling. We welcome new partners as we continue our journey to bridge the science-policy gap around net-zero compatible behaviour change, as we strive to help shape the impact-driven research and evidence-based policy making that are critical to our success to meet our net-zero targets.

About Mikael Allan Mikaelsson

Europe Lead of Net-Zero Innovation and Climate Change for the UK Government's international science and innovation division, under the auspice the UK Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) and Dept.…

Europe Lead of Net-Zero Innovation and Climate Change for the UK Government's international science and innovation division, under the auspice the UK Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) and Dept. for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS).

As part of my work, I have regional oversight and coordination of the work carried out by FCDO/BEIS’ science and innovation division on international collaboration on research, technology and innovation for climate mitigation and adaptation/resilience in Europe.

Our work informs the UK Government’s international strategy on evidence-based climate policy, net-zero-transition across the energy, transport and industry sectors, and climate adaption and resilience, through strategic and targeted policy exchange, innovation-needs assessments, technology-transfer and strengthened international research and innovation partnerships.