Imperial College London: Changing behaviour to change the world

What can people do differently to meet the challenge of achieving Net Zero, and how can government help? Imperial College London recently partnered with UK thinktank Onward for a panel event on behaviour change, Net Zero, and policy leadership.

Onward’s Head of Energy and Climate Ed Birkett welcomed the panel and audience to their seats for a hybrid discussion event at the heart of Westminster.

Air pollution, transport and travel
Professor Frank Kelly, Battcock Chair in Community Health and Policy, School of Public Health, identified air pollution as one of the key areas where policy leadership and community behaviour change must both play a role in our transition to a cleaner environment. Professor Kelly argued that reducing the total number of private vehicle journeys, for example, would deliver community health benefits, increased air quality, and help tackle climate change at the same time.

Professor Kelly also emphasised the importance of investment as a preliminary step towards behaviour change. For example, ensuring the existence of sufficient public transport infrastructure to offer a viable alternative to private vehicle transport, particularly in rural areas.

Challenges for national and local government
Philip Dunne MP, Chair of the influential Environmental Audit Committee joined the panel and reflected that much of the leading innovation in behaviour change and ‘nudge’ initiatives was being led by business and industry, with government often behind the curve. Mr Dunne reported that learning from business and paying particular attention to the consumer impacts of government policy were becoming increasingly prominent elements of his Committee’s work.

Reflecting on the role of local government, Councillor Marisa Heath (Cabinet Member for the Environment at Surrey County Council and CEO of Plant-Based Food Alliance) argued that local government is best placed to lead on many elements of climate adaptation and Net Zero projects, because of their local knowledge and connection to their communities. However, she observed that knowledge of behaviour change techniques is often thin on the ground at local government level and that councils could benefit from learning more about the theory and practice of ‘nudge’ techniques.

Cllr Heath also acknowledged that diet forms an ‘elephant in the room’ of current UK climate change and Net Zero debates, with widespread lifestyle and dietary change a critical component of any sustainable drive towards a Net Zero future.

Consumers can make the difference
Andrew Schein (Senior Adviser) joined the panel representing the Behavioural Insights Team, which advises governments, businesses and community groups on how small changes (or ‘nudges’) to behaviour can have large and positive effects on pressing policy issues. Andrew remarked that the latest Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change report indicates that simple consumer-level changes in behaviour could save gigatons of future carbon dioxide emissions. Whilst a question remains over how these techniques can successfully scale up, Mr Schein argued, the case for improving the choices available to consumers (for example, through retrofitting homes to allow for the replacement of gas boilers with heat pumps) is already strong.

The event moved into an engaged question-and-answer discussion with the panel that ranged across topics including the re-training of boiler installers to become heat pump advocates and technicians, the lessons of the ‘congestion charge’ for future road pricing initiatives, ‘time of use’ energy tariffs that respond to peaks in consumer demand, and the role of indoor air pollution and mitigation techniques for children’s’ health.

Reflecting on the event, Ed Birkett said “This was a fascinating discussion on the role of behaviour change in delivering Net Zero. It’s clear that there are lots of opportunities for citizens to reduce emissions by changing their behaviour and adopting new technologies. But there are also risks here, particularly if politicians are seen to be lecturing people.”

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