Overview of change

Achieving net zero greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, reducing levels of pollution and waste, and reversing damage to ecosystems and species loss will require changes in behaviour and consumption at every level down to households and individuals to complement technological advancements.1,2,3 For example, achieving the Paris Agreement target of keeping climate change below 1.5°C requires reducing GHG emissions to the equivalent of 2.5 tonnes of CO (tCO2) per person per year by 2030. Some individuals emit more than others;4,5,6 the wealthiest 0.54%, about 40 million people, are responsible for 14% of lifestyle-related GHG emissions, while the bottom 50% of income earners, almost 4 billion people, only emit around 10%.7 The top 1% of EU households have per capita greenhouse gas emissions 22 times larger than the 2.5 tCO2 limit, and only about 5% of EU households live within this limit (the UK’s per-capita CO2 emissions in 2019 was 5.3 tCO2, below the EU average of 7tCO2).8,9,10 Growth in affluence has outpaced technological improvements to reduce impacts; growing per capita consumption since 1970 has driven increases in biodiversity loss, waste, pollution and carbon emissions.11,12

Challenges and opportunities

There is some evidence that consumers’ attitudes, values and knowledge affect their behaviour,13,14 and that measures aimed at communicating information or changing attitudes can contribute to environmentally-sustainable behaviours.15,16,17 However, a body of recent evidence suggests that the efficacy of these measures is limited,18,19 since much consumer behaviour does not result from choices based on attitudes or knowledge but is shaped by habits,20 social norms and expectations,21,22,23 and physical surroundings.24,25 Even if consumers have positive environmental values, attitudes and intentions, this frequently fails to translate into green purchasing behaviour and other pro-environmental behaviours.26 Qualitative research suggests there is a lack of knowledge on how to overcome perceived barriers to green consumption and scepticism about the marketing of green products.27 The body of evidence suggests that interventions should not only focus on attitudes or knowledge, but change the contexts within which consumers act to foster habits that produce better environmental outcomes.28,29,30

Changing consumption behaviours can be supported by various measures, including those addressing:

  • Physical infrastructure. Lisbon saw an 817% increase in cycling after expanding its cycle networks and implementing a new electric bike-sharing31
  • Financial incentives. Carbon taxes can incentivise reductions in fuel consumption, and increase the efficiency and use of cleaner fuels and technologies.32 When countries put a price on carbon, their national emissions from fuel combustion grow at a rate 2 percentage points less than those of countries without a carbon price.33
  • Cultural norms. Encouraging office workers to adopt less formal clothing has been used to help reduce energy use in buildings in Japan.34
  • Giving low-income families training to develop their cookery skills increased consumption of locally produced foods in two US cities.35
  • Joined-up policy approaches. Every area of policy can affect consumption behaviour and its environmental outcomes.36,37 For example, education policies that encourage children to attend local schools serve to reduce the distances families travel daily,38 cutting emissions and air pollution.

Interventions can change how much people consume, or shift the timing and location of consumption behaviours, reducing environmental harms. For example, time-of-use tariffs encourage consumers to use energy at off-peak times, reducing the environmental impacts of the electricity grid.39 Providing some healthcare services at home via digital technologies, rather than in clinical settings, has reduced travel emissions and hospitals’ energy use in UK case study sites.40 Research suggests that long-term approaches41 that combine different types of intervention42, 43, 44 and engage with the diverse professionals and institutions whose work influences consumption45,46 can be effective in systematically shifting consumer behaviours to produce better environmental outcomes.

Key unknowns

Research has suggested that public debates about product sustainability are often contradictory and confusing because of the lack of objective measures of environmental and biodiversity impacts.47

Nature conservation policy initiatives rarely lead to individuals making changes because they focus on educational and structural measures with no knowledge of what measures would foster behaviours in different actors that would lead to better biodiversity outcomes.48

Shifting baseline syndrome describes a persistent downgrading of perceived ‘normal’ environmental conditions between generations. A study has provided empirical evidence of this shift in the UK, but it is unclear how to improve intergenerational communication to avoid losing critical historical local environmental knowledge and the true magnitude of long-term environmental change.49

Key questions for Parliament

What are the most effective policy instruments for changing the behaviours of different actors, including how best to communicate positive consumption choices?50,51 How can policy create conditions that foster sustainable habits by addressing cultural, social and material influences on behaviour?52 This would include the means of assessing the impacts of different policy areas on consumption behaviours and ensure that environmental goals are taken into account across all policy areas.36

How to equitably design environmental taxation? The International Monetary Fund suggests carbon tax revenue redistribution to cleaner energy users and the poorest households impacted by the costs.53

Are carbon border taxes based on emission assessments of imports needed to complement a domestic carbon tax?54,55 The life-cycle greenhouse gas emissions of products traded multiple times across borders constitute 10% of global emissions.56

Likelihood and impact

The important role of behaviour change in achieving the Sixth Carbon Budget has been set out by the Climate Change Committee.3

Research for Parliament 2021

Experts have helped us identify 30 areas of change to help the UK Parliament prepare for the future.


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Photo by Gary Butterfield on Unsplash

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