Investing in behavioral design can help fight climate change
Hidden in the IPCC’s latest climate report is a solution to reducing carbon emissions that gets less attention than solar panels or electric cars: ‘architecture of choice’ or behavioral design, which can help consumers to make better decisions for the climate, whether it’s cycling to work or eating less meat.
It’s an important part of the global fight against climate change, says Mindy Hernandez, who directs the World Resources Institute’s Living Lab for Equitable Climate Action, a program that applies behavioral research to climate change. “We’ve taken a supply-side approach to climate change for 50 years,” she says. “And as the IPCC report makes clear, this approach is not getting us where we need to be, and we are running out of time. The offer is only one arm – the behavioral side is the other arm we need to overcome the crisis. It’s neither. It’s both. The behavioral lens should complement policy changes and the technological side.
She compares it to what happened during the COVID-19 pandemic. “Vaccine development – the technology – was critical,” she says. “But [the] NIH [National Institutes of Health]CDC [Centers for Disease Control]and others have invested a tiny fraction of that time, money, and effort to understand How? ‘Or’ What to get people to take these vaccines. When the outgoing NIH director was recently asked what the NIH could have done differently in its fight against COVID, he replied, “Maybe we underinvested in behavioral research.” We shouldn’t make the same mistake in the climate crisis.
The IPCC report estimates that “comprehensive demand-side strategies” across all sectors could reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 40% to 70% worldwide by 2050. The report suggests several types of interventions, ranging from encouraging consumers to eat more sustainably or buy more sustainable products, to redesigning infrastructure to help people switch from cars to bikes or public transit.
Even simple changes influence behavior. In a classic example, a software company called Opower (later acquired by Oracle) partnered with utility companies to rethink electricity bills, sharing a chart comparing their usage with neighbors and a smiley face s was one of the most efficient houses. Energy consumption decreased and the effect was long lasting. WRI recently tested the same approach in India.
“The average effect of the Opower-esque studies is 7%, and interestingly, that’s exactly what we found – the intervention reduced household energy by 7%,” she says. “Statewide, that would be like taking 100,000 cars off the road and saving consumers $60 million a year.”
In another example, WRI tested how changing the language of a menu can influence people to choose plant-based foods. A message about how plant-based foods reduce emissions increased plant-based orders in the study, though Hernandez notes it must be a targeted message; climate change skeptics probably need a different language than those who are aware of their consumption habits. “It seems so obvious, but too often we see people as a monolith,” she says. “I’m Puerto Rican, and it amazes me every time people talk about ‘Latino voting.’ Third-generation Cubans, Puerto Ricans in New York, and first-generation Mexicans will have different concerns. all these different communities will not work well.
In previous studies, researchers at Stanford University sought to entice people to order more plant-based meals by using menu language that makes the food feel more forgiving. Google has been testing similar efforts in its employee cafeterias and working on designing plant-based “power dishes” that diners are more likely to order.
Getting people to opt out of the most sustainable choice – for example, automatically enrolling them in a renewable energy program – is another useful tool. “People still have a choice because they can opt out. But it facilitates the pro-social and pro-environmental choice. This is especially important for populations who lack the time, education and resources to pursue the option of renewable energy. The defaults fix that by doing the job and making that choice easier for everyone,” Hernandez says.
But behavioral design also goes beyond these nudges. “We must not stop there. We don’t live in isolated bubbles of personal choice,” Hernandez notes. “Individual behavior is influenced by our environments, so we need to apply behavioral science both at the micro level that responds to individual choices and behaviors as well as at the systems level.” For example, a city can put up signs telling people where to find a shared bike to rent, a simple nudge, “but if people don’t feel safe on the streets or don’t have access to affordable bikes , it’s not enough,” she said. said. “These are moving pillows.”
Another form of behavioral design is urban design that uses protected bike lanes on streets to make people feel comfortable riding.
In the world of climate activism, some people argue that it’s a distraction to think about individual behavior. The fossil fuel lobby has worked for years to make climate change appear as a consumer issue rather than a fossil industry issue, even coining the concept of a ‘carbon footprint’. Of course, policy changes must also occur. But that doesn’t mean that individual change is irrelevant. Collectively, whether people choose to replace gas-powered cars with electric cars (or bicycles) or gas stoves with induction cookers matters.
Some behaviors are the most important to target because of their outsized impact. “KR Foundation uses a term that I like: hotspot behaviorsHernandez says. “These are the behaviors that we know have the biggest climate impact: meat and dairy consumption, fossil fuel-based energy, car use and air travel. It varies a bit by region. India doesn’t need to focus on meat consumption, for example. And by demographics: low-income people do not contribute to air transport emissions. However, for most climate-conscious middle- and/or upper-income professionals, their biggest contributor to emissions is their habit of flying.
The Living Lab is exploring ways to incentivize consumers to use smart charging for electric vehicles, help people switch from driving to walking or cycling in cities, and create social norms to reduce commuting professionals. This summer, researchers will publish a paper outlining ways to alter these so-called hotspot behaviors.
Several factors are important for behavioral design to succeed, starting with investing enough time and money to test, refine, and retest new iterations. Anyone working on interventions should also build coalitions; if a government wants to reduce car use, it needs to work with bike-sharing and scooter companies and other researchers who are studying how to help new products gain acceptance and use. But interventions must also be ambitious. “We can think bigger than posters or green recycling bins,” Hernandez says. “The fate of the planet is literally at stake.”