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Fighting climate change: how lessons from behavioural science can hit carbon harder

Opinion piece by Brendan Sturrock

It shouldn’t be controversial to say that our fight against Covid-19 has been one of the world’s most successful. An important weapon in our armoury has been the well-orchestrated integrated communications that helped bring us all together against a common enemy. But, we’re facing another “Code Red” for humanity. And despite our clean, green, “100% pure” reputation, we’re punching well below our weight as a nation.

In 2019 our emissions were fifth highest per capita in the OECD, more than twice the global average. We have the fourth highest increase in emissions between 1990, when we were actually almost carbon neutral, and 2019. And at an individual level the picture is no greener. While around 60 percent believe they need to take action, this is well below the global average. Damningly for our national pride, even the Aussies are doing more than us. 

A clear lesson from our Covid-19 response is that we’ll have greater chance of success if all sides of society – government, business, media and individuals – act together. The Climate Change Commission’s recent report noted the need for behaviour change initiatives to help tackle the problem. Especially when trying to close the gap between green attitudes and real climate positive behaviour. 

But, from a communications perspective, there are significant differences in the climate context vs the Covid context. Covid gave us a single enemy to fight and some clear behaviours to adopt to help us win. Climate change is a more nebulous beast with many potential actions to take, more confusion over their relative impact, and disagreement within the population over whether or not this is an issue we need to fight in the first place. Research by Massey University’s Dr Jagadish Thacker found 30% of Kiwis fall into segments “doubtful” or downright “dismissive” of the impact of climate change.

Clearly, with climate change there’s no one team of 5 million to band together in pursuit of a common goal. But, if we follow the (behavioural) science, we can still make a difference. We need to build multiple teams that are big enough to really shift the needle. Team EV… Team Meat Free – Monday, or any day… Team healthier, more energy efficient, homes… Team not more plastic packaging please… Team slow fashion… We need to get smarter with data to understand the potential returns from different behaviours, and the barriers to change, to help prioritise our teams and develop hypotheses who are most likely to shift – and how. And, we need to help drive the desired behaviour by reframing the balance of power, making difficult choices seem easier and more rewarding.

Here are a few potential places to start:

1.     Electric Vehicles are a key opportunity noted by the Climate Change Commission. The government is already committed to upgrading their fleet, and is beginning to make them a more attractive alternative through the new Clean Car Discount scheme. But there are still a number of barriers for the average driver to overcome. What if we could make switching to an EV as easy as switching your broadband? That’s what UK site Carverter does, suggesting the best EV for you based on your current number plate or online “wizard”, and provides financing options to help bridge the gap between higher cost of purchase and lower cost of ownership.

2.     Brands will have to lead the way for consumers – not least because they’re increasingly expected to – modelling, facilitating and rewarding more climate positive behaviour. Think Greenfield Meat Co not just asking people to eat less meat, but rewarding them with discounts on future purchases for doing so. (The company is now carbon neutral by the way). H&M enabling people to recycle old clothes in-store – and even in Animal Crossing. Or how Ikea “drove” people to their new sustainable store via posters giving local Londoners directions how to walk there, down to the number of steps, and a special offer on home delivery.

3.     Make Carbon a more visible component of the ecosystem so that it becomes a more conscious currency. Some brands are already introducing carbon labelling. What if it were mandatory? What if your car insurance premiums included data on your carbon footprint so they were based on how safely your drove, for yourself, those around you and the planet. And what if we re-thought rewards programmes to encourage people to save carbon, instead of promoting spending on more stuff?

Come on Aotearoa, the data shows we’re not moving nearly fast enough. We’ve got to get more balls rolling. And get the balls currently in play moving faster. Let’s pick our teams and, at the very least, get ahead of the Aussies in terms of making a difference.

Brendan Sturrock

One of the talented Idealog Team Content Producers made this post happen.

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