Over the last two decades, many countries have attempted policies and actions to address climate change. However, the positive impact that individual and community behaviours can have on climate action has remained under realised. Ivanova et al. (2016) estimates lifestyle and consumption emissions at 65 per cent of the global total.
There is an urgent need for individuals to transcend geographical, social and economic boundaries, and come together as a global community to tackle the climate crisis. Individual behaviour, therefore, has enormous potential to make a significant dent in the climate conundrum. The UNEP emission gap report 2020 lists myriad measures from fuel efficient vehicles, energy efficiency, healthier and vegetarian diets, to change in mode of transportations, to build in sustainability in modern lifestyle.
PM Modi introduced the concept of ‘Lifestyle for the Environment (LiFE) at COP26 in Glasgow, calling upon individuals and institutions to drive lifestyle changes for climate action.
And with the solutions already being in our sight, the focus will need to be on making individuals adapt these changes in their lifestyle. Here comes the power of nudges. A new study in Frontiers in Communication has demonstrated the powerful impact that subtle messaging and cues, or ‘nudges’, can provide on encouraging people to show socially desirable behaviours. Green nudges can be a powerful tool to encourage people to act in an environmentally benign manner.
Nudge in public policy
Nudges are small changes in the choice architecture of individuals that alters people’s behaviour in a predictable way.
Nudging has been recognised as effective policy tool to align intention and action in facilitating behavioural change amongst public. Nudging and behavioural research are transforming the way governments interact and engage with their citizens, frame policies and solve social problems. An example of this comes from the Behavioral Insights Team (BIT) — a company spun out of the British government in 2014 which pioneered the use of psychology to help policymakers change behaviour through nudges rather than taxes or laws. India’s policy think tank, Niti Aayog, is actively using principles of behavioural economics to make government programs more effective and recommend policy corrections.
Designing an effective nudge to facilitate climate friendly choices
There is no dearth of information on climate friendly lifestyle, also across globe there should be enthusiasm to adopt these practices as often they are economically smart choices (like energy efficient appliances) or socially more acceptable (recycling or less use of plastic). But one thing is what we intent to do. Another what we in fact do. Behavioural scientists speak about a so-called intention-action gap. And hence the question arises as to how do we present the already present information to make more people implement those.
Providing more information may always not be the right course. This meta-analytic study of a behavioural bias called ‘choice overload’ states that more information can lead to people making worse decisions, stick to old routines or not make any decision at all.
Hence, the need to design better by appropriate messaging. Most interventions in the field of green nudging involved making information more salient, appealing and/or easy. Mostly these could be broadly categorized in four streams: making the sustainable behaviour defaults, providing social incentives for sustainable actions, making the benefits of sustainable action salient, and removing barriers to green action.
Nudge: Making the sustainable choice a default behaviour – People tend to stick by the default choices or the ‘status quo’. The range of choices here could entail making eco settings on appliances as a default option, or making carbon offsetting a default while booking tickets. Both the government and the private entities can step in here to make sustainable choices a default option ration than a choice for consumers to make.
Nudge: Social incentives for sustainable behaviours – This approach relies on the assumption that people are influenced by social norms and comparisons. Social incentives may be invoked in a variety of different ways, such as descriptions of others’ behavior or normative attitudes, recognition (or social status), to name a few. To make it even more impactful, harness the ‘social identity’ factor. Social influences are particularly powerful when they come from “people like us”, or people they find likeable, credible or authoritative.
Nudge: Make the information attractive or stand out – People are drawn to stimuli that stand out, are engaging and are relevant to us. Thus making information attractive or positive can drive them to action, instance, making recycle bins look attractive to reduce litter, or putting clear information about waste segregation. This has also been displayed in several studies like this “Nudging a la carte” where just the positioning of greener and healthier menu made people move from energy intensive diet to leaner, greener diet choices. In fact, getting consumers to shift from high-emission and water-intensive meat to climate-friendly vegetarian (also locally grown and organic) food has been a holy grail among green nudgers.
Nudge: Remove or add hassles to sustainable behaviour – People are disproportionately impacted by small frictions or hassles. Removing or introducing these frictions can discourage undesirable actions.
Reducing the ‘Green Gap’
There’s always a relenting gap between what we intend to do, and what we, as consumers, actually do. This disparity between pro-climate attitudes and people’s actual behaviour is called ‘green gap’. A simple example of this could be knowing that switching off unused lights or appliances, or turning off car engines at traffic stops will save resources and money, but most of us tend to not do that. Policy makers have for long argued on putting financial disincentives to check these behaviours. Behavioral economists have noted that these disincentives have pretty much no effect on people’s choices.
This persistent green gap can only be reduced with how consumers perceive things, and what these little actions can achieve. As the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) in its “Little Book of Green Nudges noted that just by putting how much food is wasted every day in college canteens, and how many poor people could have been fed with the food wasted; they could achieve a massive reduction in food wastage.
Given that we make choices every day, and our everyday choices have consequences, it becomes pertinent that a shift towards better choices are made. Consumers are highly susceptible to environmental and social cues. It will thus be significant if government (both union and state) realize this, and undertake deeper researches into finding ways how individual actions can be nudged to create societal surplus – in terms of environmental sustainability, equity, and inclusion, ethical capacity of individuals, and social progress.
Aakash Mehrotra is a novelist, blogger, and consultant in international development working in South Asia and Africa.