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Behaviour Change & Nudge

    • Nudging and other behavioural techniques are fundamentally undemocratic and infringe on basic liberties.
    • Claims that most people would support the suggested policy recommendations are untrue.
    • Only coercive and authoritarian government controls on behaviour would bring about the behavioural change that green campaigners seek

    According to policy recommendations to the UK government published by the UK Climate Change Committee (CCC), between 53 and 62 per cent of the UK’s emissions reductions will come from behaviour change. Though many green advocates say that green technology will offer like-for-like replacements for applications that have been made possible by energy from hydrocarbon fuels, the very clearly stated implication of Net Zero for the vast majority of people is radical changes in lifestyle. Policies will be required to change people’s diet, to push people away from private transport and onto buses and trains, to limit people’s travel on foreign holidays and business trips, to change their use of heating and hot water in their homes, among many other things. Only a little over a third of emissions reduction will come from technological changes directly.

    It goes without saying that if the public had an appetite for such radical changes to their lifestyle, the CCC’s analysis and emissions-reduction policies would be unnecessary – people would change the way they live of their own volition. This fact leaves policymakers wishing to alter people’s behaviour against their wishes facing a stark choice between suspending democracy, risking a political backlash, and finding ways to coerce people’s changes in lifestyle.  Each of these interventions will be a jarring experience for most people, contrary to their expectations of government, their hopes for their future, and the lifestyles they are accustomed to. On any practicable analysis, ‘behaviour change’ is both a euphemism for a significant reduction in standard of living, and a radical departure from normal democratic politics. In other words, future governments committed to Net Zero by 2050 have a task of persuasion ahead of them that has no precedent in history.

    The CCC Net Zero report understates the task, admitting that, “New, compelling narratives will be needed to inspire and mobilise mainstream participation in solutions, adoption of technologies and change in behaviours”, and that “Government must create a wider context which nurtures public engagement with action on climate change and must also enable consumers to take specific concrete actions that deliver large emissions reductions”. But despite offering a figure on the proportion of emissions reduction that will come from behaviour change (53-62%), the CCC gives no breakdown of what ‘concrete actions’ they expect the consumer to take. Even a separate 81-page report on behaviour change produced by Imperial College for the CCC offered no quantitative analysis, but is heavy on vague wishful thinking, such as the claim that “Seeing others’ engagement, and the progress achieved in emissions reductions and co-benefits, should reinforce citizens’ sense that taking action is possible and socially desirable and that everyone can, should, and is doing their part”.

    Such hope that peer-effects will yield a radical step change in the take-up of pro-climate behaviour belies the scale of the Net Zero agenda. The Imperial College report admits that “household consumption footprints are dominated by mobility (34%), food (30%) and housing (21%)” (the latter standing mostly for heating). But demonstrating the scale of the problem does nothing to demonstrate the feasibility of solutions. The putative problem of emissions is caused for most people in most cases by meeting bare necessity: transport, heating, and eating, not frivolity.

    The CCC, for example, claim that 34% of emissions come from transport (“mobility”), and advocate for EVs and for greater use of public transport and “active travel” (walking and cycling). But putting this imperative before people’s management of their own needs risks significant reductions in utility and increases in expense.

    For example, whereas at the time of writing, and despite significant increases in the value of second hand cars, the used car market offers households private transport at extremely low prices, equivalent to or significantly less than a month’s median salary of £2,657. Used car sale sites list good quality, practical, family cars with under 75,000 miles for £1,500 or less. For very many households, these older but still very serviceable cars are their only transport option. By contrast, public transport remains prohibitively expensive. A Zones 1-4 annual London Transport travelcard costs £2,208. The same card for an 11-15 year old costs £1,104. Thus a family of four – two adults and two teenagers – would face an annual bill of £6,624, just for daily transport within the city. London is expensive by national standards, but the point stands that in most places in Britain, hydrocarbon-powered private transport is both significantly cheaper and more convenient than public transport, on a per-passenger-mile basis.

    The economic depreciation of petrol and diesel cars that make private transport possible for many millions of households has yet to be seen in EVs, which the CCC also offers as an example of ‘behaviour change’. And even if this depreciation is achieved, it may well come at the cost of the deterioration of the battery. Cost and so-called ‘range anxiety’ remain significant barriers to the EV market for many people. Though claims have been made that a ‘million mile battery’ has been developed, they are premature. No such battery yet exists on the market, much less proven itself capable of such performance, nor demonstrated that it can provide an economic alternative to petrol and diesel cars.

    Furthermore, though EV advocates argue that EVs can reduce CO2 emissions, they are categorically not “Net Zero”. Optimistic policy-advocacy analysis claims that EV emissions are one third of their hydrocarbon-powered alternatives, based on a lifetime comparison of a Nissan Leaf and an ‘average conventional new car’, but that is at the point of sale, the EV’s production has caused more emissions. By 12 years, a conventional car would have caused the emissions of 41 tonnes of CO2, whereas the Nissan Leaf would cause just 13 tonnes, assuming that it is charged from fossil-free generators (which, given the absence of nuclear power, it won’t be). But other, and more recent analyses are less confident in their statements, arguing that a Tesla Model 3’s 80 kWh battery may cause the emissions of 16 tonnes of CO2, and admitting in footnotes that this is based on estimates produced from battery production in the West. Estimates of the carbon footprint of batteries produced in the East may be as high as 40 tonnes, the authors explain, but this was excluded from their analysis. An analysis of EVs vs conventional cars in Australia found that “The total life cycle emissions from a fossil-fuelled car and an electric car in Australia were 333g of CO₂ per km and 273g of CO₂ per km, respectively” – a difference of just 18 per cent. Clearly, academic opinions on the virtues of EVs varies greatly, despite their advocacy.

    The claim that EVs and public transport can significantly reduce the CO2 emissions from transport therefore looks extremely weak. Moreover, the idea that such ‘behaviour change’ can be achieved economically and without drastic changes to lifestyle is even weaker. Even with optimistic estimates of the CO2 intensity of alternatives to hydrocarbon-powered transport, there is no such thing as “Net Zero” transport. And claims that ‘active travel’ can help close the gap fail to consider people’s personal circumstances, such as distance from family and support, physical ability, weather, time, and geography.

    The problem of cost also afflicts the CCC’s ambition to eliminate the 21 per cent of emissions that come from “housing”, which is mostly heating. A 2016 analysis by the Energy Technologies Institute found that, “Although very deep retrofits are technically feasible, their cost could potentially be similar to the cost of rebuilding the entire UK housing stock (in excess of £2tn)” – a figure that is close to both UK GDP, and national debt. ‘Very deep retrofits’ are those which the analysis considers to be an “80% or more improvement in average fabric efficiency’ of a property”, a reconstruction which the analysis notes, implies a significant carbon footprint, offsetting any putative gains from CO2 efficiency of the retrofitted property.

    The figure of an 80 per cent improvement in efficiency of homes for £2 trillion ought to cause policymakers to consider whether that sum is worth spending to achieve that benefit. Moreover, what proportion of this reduction could feasibly be achieved by ‘behaviour change’ that cannot even be achieved economically by reengineering existing homes?

    This point is further underscored by analysis offered by the UK Parliament Environmental Audit Committee, which found that “19 million UK properties need energy efficiency upgrades to meet EPC Band C, and the EAC heard in evidence that it can cost on average £18,000 (before a heat pump installation)”, and the government had “underestimated the costs to decarbonise UK homes by 2050”. At around £30,000 required (i.e. with a heat pump) per each of the 19 million households to meet a minimum level of efficiency, the total bill for such a retrofit will be £570 billion. This figure is many times higher than the advice given to the government by the CCC in its 2020 Net Zero report, which additionally claims that “63% of homes need spend no more than £1000 on retrofitting energy efficiency measures”. The CCC report also offers no direct explanation as to how such a remarkably low figure was obtained in its scenario, but includes assumptions for 2050 such as a tenfold increase in the capacity of UK wind, the abolition of ICE car sales, 225 TWh of power to be produced from hydrogen, and 104 million tonnes of CO2 to be captured and stored by CCS. Neither grid scale hydrogen nor CCS has been demonstrated in the UK as technologically or economically feasible. Moreover, since the CCC claim that, “Total investment costs are less than £10,000 per household on average in our Balanced Pathway”, and that the same scenario requires every household to be fitted with a heat pump, which at today’s costs exceed £10,000, the CCC seems to be clearly misleading Parliament and the public.

    The only clear indication given by the CCC of behaviour change leading to emissions reduction in its advice to Parliament is on the issue of diet. According to the CCC’s 2020 Net Zero report, by 2050, 21 per cent of “agricultural land will be needed for actions to reduce emissions and sequester carbon”, and that “Improvements in agricultural productivity and a trend towards healthier diets are key to releasing land for afforestation, peatland restoration and bioenergy crops”, the main point of which is “an accelerated shift in diets away from meat and dairy products”. Under the CCC’s “balanced pathway” policy scenario, by 2050, there will be a 35 per cent reduction in meat and dairy, and under three of its more optimistic scenarios, there will be a 50 per cent reduction.

    Though these reductions may seem feasible, they are functionally equivalent to half of the country becoming vegetarian. Moreover, the CCC do not explain how this transformation can be driven. Whereas various researchers and other policy advocates have proposed a ‘meat tax’, evidence from the CCC’s only experiment with public consultation revealed that this would be unworkable.

    In early 2020, the CCC’s chief executive, Chris Stark, was one of four experts appointed by a group of Parliamentary committees to convene a Climate Assembly of 112 members of the public to consider the UK’s Net Zero policy options. The CCC and its staff members have hailed the Assembly as a success, and have suggested that the Assembly supported its earlier policy recommendations. For example, the 2020 Net Zero report claims that,

    Many people can make low carbon choices, about how they travel, how they heat their homes, what they buy and what they eat. The experience of the UK Climate Assembly shows that if people understand what is needed and why, if they have options and can be involved in decision-making processes, they will support the transition to Net Zero.

    At the launch of the CCC’s 2020 report, CCC chief economist Mike Thompson claimed that,

    The climate Assembly said they would be happy with a 20-40 per cent ‘cut’ in meat consumption. […] If you take the time to explain why the changes are needed, to explain the sort of things that need to happen, they’re really supportive of action. And actually we were surprised by how supportive they were at lots of the things we were thinking of already. So what we’ve done is we’ve taken their advice and we’ve constructed our scenarios to align to it.

    But these claims are simply untrue. And if there appears to be any semblance of support for the CCC’s key policy recommendation from the Climate Assembly (CA), it is only because the CA were not free to reject the CCC’s proposals.

    The CA considered the question of meat and dairy consumption in a session called “What we eat and how we use the land”. But just one third of the CA, 35 members, took part in the session. Given a list of eight policy proposals, just 29 per cent (i.e. 10 CA members) chose “some, just less meat” as one of their top four priorities, making it the second least-popular priority, ahead of making diet “Part of planning policy and new developments, including allotments”. This was as close to an outright rejection of the CCC’s policy as it was possible for the CA to produce. Yet the CCC’s chief executive and his senior staff have claimed that the CA supported it in their advice to the public and to Parliament. Moreover, the CA emphasised that “these changes should be voluntary rather than compulsory”. This strong caveat to what little support for the intervention could be produced by a process that excluded the possibility of rejection, was not mentioned by the CCC’s report.

    This failure to engage public support, despite significant pressure from experts, in a process in which debate was excluded, creates a huge question mark over the CCC’s and other policymakers’ faith in ‘behaviour change’.

    During the Covid-19 pandemic, policymakers drew heavily on the expertise of behavioural scientists and psychologists to elicit public cooperation with policy known as ‘nudge’,

    In an open, democratic society, coercive policy that takes for granted the policy-agenda’s rightfulness over an otherwise unwilling population’s right to dissent is an extraordinary act of bad faith. Whether or not psychologists have developed sophisticated techniques of persuasion, merely convening such experts with a view to reverse-engineering public opinion and to elicit obedience means government retreating from democratic principles. Moreover, and as the experience of covid policy reveals, these techniques are neither sophisticated nor very successful: nudge soon came to shove, and even expert dissenting opinion, which later turned out to be valid criticism of policy and science, has faced crudely authoritarian responses. Such draconian interventions have created a deep schism within society, between people fearful for their safety and those who believe the state has exceeded the norms of government with the consent of the governed.

    As the UK experiences record energy prices, the UK Behavioural Insights Team (BIT) – a private company which is part-owned by the UK government’s Cabinet Office – announced that it could help households reduce their usage of gas. According to BIT’s managing director, Lis Costa, as quoted in the Telegraph, domestic demand for gas could be reduced by 2% by publishing leader boards that allowed households to compare their energy use against their neighbours’. This stunningly inept intervention epitomises the government’s increasing dependence on psychologists’ putative ‘insight’ to overcome crises and to regulate lifestyles.

    As the story went to press, estimates of the average domestic energy bill rose to £4,400 per year. Before even these estimates however, lower estimates of £3,285 annual bills prompted anticipation of a third of UK households falling into the category of ‘energy poverty’ by the Autumn of 2022. The notion of a ‘nudge’, during a time in which many will be experiencing actual hardship and being forced to change their behaviour, to attempt to elicit a further behaviour change therefore demonstrates not merely a quasi-official, regulatory body’s failure to grasp the situation, but its callous indifference to the public.

    Behaviour change seems to be the policy of last resort for policymakers and advocates facing the fact of policy failure. Where governments and other agencies have failed to conceive of policies that enable ordinary lifestyles to continue in a ‘post-carbon’ economy, the burden falls on ordinary, and generally less wealthy people, to accept a diminished standard of living.

    This is a categorical political transformation of society, and concomitantly a dark side to the role of ‘behaviour change’ experts and psychologists in policymaking. Whereas such profound changes to society would ordinarily be the subject of intense debate and testing through the democratic process, the legitimacy of the policy agenda has instead been taken for granted. This leaves the problem of people who, for whatever reason, including their self-interest, disagree with the changes to society implied by the transformation. Psychologists have been engaged to resolve this problematic democratic deficit, not by taking part in good faith public discussion, but by developing techniques to circumvent its necessity.

    In late 2021, BIT and Sky News UK jointly published a report called ‘The Power of TV: Nudging Viewers to Decarbonise their Lifestyles’. Professor David Halpern, Chief Executive Officer of BIT, claimed in the report that, “Through the programs that they produce, the characters that they create, the plot-lines that they develop, and the adverts that they broadcast, content creators have the potential to have a far-reaching impact on the knowledge, attitudes and behaviours of citizens. […] How can we nudge viewers to decarbonise their lifestyle on screen?”. And the report’s summary goes on to claim that ‘Mass media, such as television, can play a pivotal role in encouraging consumers to decarbonise’, and that ‘The question must be not if, but how best to use this powerful tool of persuasion for maximum good’.

    But how can anyone be so sure of such a far reaching political agenda, which has neither been tested democratically nor subject to public debate, let alone confident in the ethics of such a strategy’s treatment of the public, as critics asked? The possibility of debate on the issue of climate has long been all but abolished from the UK’s major news and current affairs broadcasters, leaving advocates of draconian interventions to cajole and coerce the public’s obedience with no answer. Instead, the BBC in particular has chosen to belittle political opponents.