Why is behaviour change a better bet than techno-optimism?

Prof Lorraine Whitmarsh, Bath University, argues that when it comes to tackling climate breakdown, changing the behaviour of the world’s high consumers guarantees better results than just trusting to technology.

Article from Responsible Science Journal No. 6. Advance online publication: 21 March 2024

Nothing short of societal transformation is needed to tackle climate change. Scientific assessments show that we need systemic change to societies and economies if we are to keep global warming to safe levels (IPCC, 2023). Yet, international progress towards the Paris Agreement goals of limiting global warming to 1.5°C has fallen far short. The latest UN Emissions Gap report (2023) shows that while some progress has been made in slowing the rise in carbon emissions, the world is on track for a temperature rise of at least 2.9°C.

Where progress has been made, this has largely been on energy supply (starting to shift from fossil fuels to renewables) but far less attention has been given to tackling demand – how we use energy and resources – and this directly relates to people’s lifestyles and values (Verfuerth et al., 2023). Making progress on demand requires engaging with people in both decision-making (about the future of society and climate policies) and in action (i.e. behaviour change; Demski, 2021). Indeed, two-thirds of emissions can be attributed to households (IPCC, 2023) and most measures needed to reach our carbon targets in the UK will require behaviour change by consumers (CCC, 2020). The scale of behaviour change is also startling: the average UK lifestyle carbon footprint must reduce from 8.5t to 2.5t CO2 by 2030 to stay within 1.5°C warming (Akenji et al., 2021). Impactful actions to achieve this include flying less, eating more plant-based foods, adopting electric vehicles and heat pumps, wasting less, and investing in sustainable funds (Ivanova et al., 2021; Aviva, 2021). While some behaviour change involves adopting green technologies, some is about changing how (much) we consume.

Yet policy-makers in the UK and elsewhere are often resistant to considering anything other than technological solutions, for various reasons including ideological reluctance to ‘intervene’ in lifestyles and business practices, skills gaps, and perceived lack of social mandate (Cairney & Oliver, 2020; Willis, 2008). Instead, there is a reliance on renewable energy, carbon capture and storage (CCS), and certain demand-side technologies (electric vehicles, heat pumps). This reliance on technological solutions and eschewing of behaviour change is epitomised in the foreword to the UK’s Net Zero Strategy by then-PM Boris Johnson:

“For years, going green was inextricably bound up with a sense that we have to sacrifice the things we love. But this strategy shows how we can build back greener, without so much as a hair shirt in sight. In 2050, we will still be driving cars, flying planes and heating our homes, but our cars will be electric gliding silently around our cities, our planes will be zero emission allowing us to fly guilt-free, and our homes will be heated by cheap reliable power drawn from the winds of the North Sea.[…]  We will unleash the unique creative power of capitalism to drive the innovation that will bring down the costs of going green.”

There are at least two major problems with this techno-optimistic approach:

First, it is not realistic. Shifting to renewables is essential, but insufficient to keep up with the rapid global rise in energy demand and the need to electrify heating and transport (which will require three times as much electricity as today). As Allwood et al. (2019) point out: “If we expand renewables as fast as we can, we could deliver about 60% of this requirement with zero emissions in 2050. Therefore in 2050 we must plan to use 40% less energy than we use today.”

Moreover, CCS and hydrogen (which are central planks of UK climate policy), provide “high risk and uncertain rewards”, whereas ready-made energy demand reduction options cut energy demand in the short-term and are “disproportionately effective” (Barrett et al., 2023). The governments’ own climate advisors similarly criticised the Prime Minister’s recent roll-back on (demand-side) climate policies: “Ruling out demand-side measures in a wide range of areas such as transport choices and diet reduces the available options to reduce emissions, increasing overall delivery risks. It also removes some important flexibility in the way that future targets can be met” (CCC, 2023). Similarly, a recent House of Lords (2022) inquiry concluded the UK government’s approach to climate policy is ‘seriously inadequate’ because it failed to address the need for behaviour change.

Conversely, there is a strong evidence base on behaviour change solutions that work and are immediately available (Whitmarsh et al., 2021). For example, we found giving people information on water saving, asking them to commit to reducing water use, and giving feedback on their progress led to a reduction in shower time of 38% (Haggar et al., 2023). Other work shows congestion charging has reduced car use by 33% in London (Kuss & Nicholas, 2022), while doubling the proportion of vegetarian options in canteens increased plant-based sales by up to 80% (Garnett et al., 2019). Combining interventions is even more effective; for example combining environmental messaging, economic incentives (a surcharge on disposable cups), and infrastructure (free keep-cups) reduced disposable coffee cup use by 38%. Messaging by itself only changed behaviour by 1% (Poortinga & Whitaker, 2018).

Second, it is not desirable. Demand-side approaches deliver wide-ranging wellbeing benefits, particularly to health (Creutzig et al., 2022). There is overwhelming evidence that climate action improves health due to reduced air pollution, eating more fruit and vegetables, and walking or cycling instead of driving (Whitmee et al., 2023). Moreover, people with greener lifestyles tend to be happier; our analysis across diverse countries found people taking more environmental action have higher subjective wellbeing (Capstick et al., 2020). On the other hand, materialism negatively affects wellbeing (Dittmar et al., 2014). Taken together, this evidence suggests going green is not about ‘sacrifice’ – far from it; it is more likely to improve quality of life. We have been using this insight to engage people with climate action, highlighting the various benefits of car use reduction (Figure 1).


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Figure 1. Example ‘pen portrait’ of Scottish public segments reducing car use.


But it is worse than just missing opportunities to improve wellbeing. Government inaction is actually reducing wellbeing. Climate worry is high in most countries. Indeed, most people around the world (57%) say they are experiencing severe impacts from climate change already, and many (38%) expect to be displaced from their homes in the next 25 years as a result of climate change (Ipsos, 2023). Young people are particularly worried and angry about climate change (Poortinga et al., 2023), with 45% saying climate anxiety is impacting on functioning (Hickman et al., 2021). Importantly, young people’s climate distress is linked to a perceived failure of governments to respond to the climate crisis (Hickman et al., 2021). Conversely, demand-side solutions enable people to play an active role in addressing climate change – and taking action, particularly with other people, can help people manage climate anxiety (Whitmarsh et al., 2022).

Yet while governments might assume that demand-side net zero policies would be unpopular amongst the public, in fact most say they want to take more action on climate and there is broad support for a range of these policies. For example, around seven in ten people support frequent flyer levies, and most also support environmental pricing, increasing vegetarian options in public food provisioning, phasing out gas boilers, and low-traffic neighbourhoods (Brisley & Whitmarsh, 2022).

These policies are needed because people want to take more action on climate change but currently face significant barriers. These range from knowledge gaps about what is most effective, to high-consumption social norms, to financial and physical constraints, to limited opportunities to influence political or organisational decisions. Removing these barriers involves clearer communication of climate policies and more public involvement in policy design, as well as policies that make low-carbon behaviours easier, cheaper, and more attractive (Mitev et al., 2023).

In sum, radical social and behavioural change is essential for reaching net zero and increasing resilience to climate change impacts. While UK climate policy focuses on technological solutions to climate change, this is unrealistic, misses opportunities to improve wellbeing, and may even reduce wellbeing (via climate anxiety linked to perceived government inaction to address the climate crisis). This is why behaviour change is a better bet for tackling climate change than techno-optimism.

Prof Lorraine Whitmarsh MBE is an environmental psychologist, specialising in perceptions and behaviour in relation to climate change, energy and transport. She is Director of the Centre for Climate Change and Social Transformations (CAST), and is based at the University of Bath.

This article expands on Lorraine's talk at the 2023 Responsible Science conference - watch the video.

SGR’s Fair Lifestyle Targets provide a guide for behaviour change compatible with the Paris Climate Agreement - see:

[Image by Eduardo Enrietti]



Akenji, L. et al., (2021). 1.5-Degree Lifestyles: Towards A Fair Consumption Space for All. Hot or Cool Institute, Berlin.

Allwood, J. et al (2019) Absolute Zero : Delivering the UK's climate Change Commitment with Incremental Changes to Today's Technologies. University of Cambridge, Cambridge.

Aviva (2021). Pensions Fund Carbon-Saving Research.  https://makemymoneymatter.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2021/07/Summary-of-21x-research.pdf

Barrett J., Betts-Davies S., Garvey A. and Marsden G. 2023. The missed opportunity – ignoring the evidence on energy demand reduction. Centre for Research into Energy Demand Solutions. Oxford, UK.

Brisley, R. & Whitmarsh, L. (2022). Net Zero Living. https://www.ipsos.com/sites/default/files/ct/publication/documents/2022-06/net-zero-living-ipsos-cast-2022.pdf

Cairney, P. & Oliver, K. (2020). How should academics engage in policymaking to achieve impact? Political Studies Review, 18, 228– 244.

CCC (2020). Sixth Carbon Budget Report. https://www.theccc.org.uk/publication/sixth-carbon-budget/

CCC (2023). https://www.theccc.org.uk/2023/10/12/ccc-assessment-of-recent-announcements-and-developments-on-net-zero/

Capstick, S., Nash, N., Whitmarsh, L., Poortinga, W., Haggar, P., & Brügger, A. (2022). The connection between subjective wellbeing and pro-environmental behaviour: Individual and cross-national characteristics in a seven-country study. Environmental Science and Policy, 133, 63-73. 

Creutzig, F., Niamir, L., Bai, X. et al. (2022). Demand-side solutions to climate change mitigation consistent with high levels of we