Creating climate-friendly behaviour – 10 good ideas

Changing our behaviour is essential for a rapid transition to a zero carbon future, and there are many insights from psychology and behavioural change studies that can be useful in helping make change happen in our homes, communities and places of work.

Here is a selection of ideas exploring how we can better understand what motivates our behaviour so we can help trigger the shift to a zero carbon Britain.

This is part of a series of one hundred good ideas drawn from the Centre for Alternative Technology’s new report, Zero Carbon Britain: Making it Happen.

Fear, denial and hard choices: where are we now?

Although increasing numbers of us now accept that climate change is actually happening and that we humans are responsible, we may still fail to act accordingly. Whilst it’s tempting to think that simply providing more information about the risks will inspire action, this has been shown over many years to be fairly ineffective in changing behaviour.

One of the key issues is the context in which choices are made. In a culture built on access to cheap fossil fuels it can be difficult, and sometimes impossible, for people to make the most environmentally sound choices. As well as challenges associated with cost, access and lack of supportive infrastructure, we are social animals and tend to behave in the ways that we think others behave. Choices that are currently seen as the acceptable norm – such as driving to work, frequent flying or high meat diets – easily become ingrained habitual behaviours that can be difficult to change [sources 1 and 2].

On top of this, feelings of powerlessness or scepticism about whether we can have any real effect, or around the poor level of political response, can lead to a phenomenon known as ‘stealth denial’, whereby people acknowledge the risks but fail to take action [3]. This is compounded when climate change is considered a distant threat in terms of time and geography [4]. It’s a tricky balance. Provision of too much information or frightening evidence may actually increase the sense of helplessness and reduce engagement [5].

We need to understand how to overcome these barriers.

Encouraging change, empowering action

Changes to our diets, the way we travel and how we choose to heat and power our homes can make an enormous difference in helping reduce emissions. Here are some of the ways that we can facilitate the shift and empower people to take action.

61) Beat the barriers

Let’s make changes in behaviour as easy as possible. There are many examples of how this has been achieved. For example by providing off-road segregated cycle paths and reduced urban traffic speeds we can create safer routes for cyclists, making the low carbon option more appealing.

This has been done effectively in many European cities where cycling has become the norm. For example, Copenhagen, Hamburg and have pioneered denser development with better public transport, whilst also offering excellent support for safer cycling [6].

Another idea is to devise incentives that encourage us to combine energy works with general home repairs, maintenance and improvements, so that the costs and disruption become marginal [7].

To find out more see Making it Happen page 189

62) From footprint to mindprint

The idea of ‘corporate social responsibility’ should be broadened to include an understanding of the values that a company promotes, and how they affect behaviour. A business that has taken important steps to reduce its direct environmental impact (or ‘footprint’) may still be wreaking environmental havoc through the values that it promotes in its marketing materials (its ‘mindprint’). [8]

To find out more see Making it Happen page 148

63) Put people in control

Individuals can be motivated by perceptions of efficacy – both their own ability to act and the perceived effectiveness of that action. For example, a systematic review of interventions to reduce energy in workplaces found that providing participants with control and responsibility to alter practices was a particularly effective strategy, resulting in electricity savings of 30% or higher [9].

To find out more see Making it Happen page 173

64) Show the power of doing stuff

Stories showing that change is possible and fostering a sense that other people care can be very empowering and can demonstrate that individual actions really do make a difference. They can help overcome a negative view that society is too selfish and encourage more people to take action [10].

There is also role for governments, media and public institutions, such as museums, to share the positive results of taking action on environmental issues. This can help show that people really do care about climate change, creating further social proof of its importance and contributing to a positive feedback process. [8]

To find out more see Making it Happen page 174

65) Harness the power of social norms

Allowing people to see just how many of their peers are taking positive action can motivate change [11]. A good example is the Green Open Homes network – by visiting real homes and hearing stories from people like themselves visitors can change their perception of social norms. Providing positive feedback to those who make environmentally sound choices can help convey that this is socially desirable, harnessing the power of new social norms [12].

To find out more see Making it Happen page 176

66) Create spaces for new ideas

Creating a ‘social space’ for trying out new behaviours can help catalyse change. For example workplace canteens providing one new meat-free dish a week can be an effective way of encouraging willingness to change [13]. Similarly, programmes that allow drivers to experience the joys of an electric vehicle can increase take-up and encourage people to recommend them to others [14].

To find out more see Making it Happen page 174 and 177

67) Access to new skills

To make new choices we often need new knowledge and skills. For example, improving cooking skills and building knowledge of new dishes is important to help individuals move to a lower meat diet [15].

Knowledge of the methods and technologies to deliver energy efficiency must increase for builders and installers through training, exemplar projects and information sharing – a good example of this is the ‘Passivhaus Diaries’ of the Green Building Company [16].

To find out more see Making it Happen page 175

68) Offer ‘peer-to-peer’ learning

Transition Wilmslow community energy scheme utilised a peer-to-peer community engagement approach by training 40 local residents to provide advice – as locals were ‘fed up’ with being targeted by commercial organisations. They developed a “friendly, neighbourly approach” which helped 73 out of 100 householders pledge to take action to reduce their energy use [17].

69) Leading from the top

High profile individuals promoting climate solutions can help to normalise new behaviours.

For example, following on previous Mayor Boris Johnson’s public commitment to cycling, the new Mayor Sadiq Khan has appointed London’s first-ever Walking and Cycling Commissioner.


Will Norman will work closely with the Mayor in helping deliver his pledge to get more Londoners active by making cycling and walking safer and easier in the capital. This will include pushing forward with the Mayor’s Healthy Streets programme to create a safer, more pleasant London for cyclists and pedestrians, and investing a record budget of £770m on infrastructure and initiatives to promote cycling until 2021/2022.

To find out more see Making it Happen page 177

70) Use natural periods of change to create new habits

A change in context, such as moving house, leaving home, starting a new job, or the beginning of parenthood, have been shown to provide a window of opportunity where people can shift their actions to be more in line with how they would actually like to behave [18].

Recognition of this has led to many initiatives that are based on transition moments in people’s lives – for example, the transition from school to university is a moment that has been used to promote healthy lifestyle habits (reduced smoking, exercise, fruit and vegetable consumption) to students using an online intervention [19].

To find out more see Making it Happen page 179

Making it happen

The ways we chose to shift our behaviour change towards zero carbon is critical in achieving the traction and engagement necessary, and highlighting the local co-benefits can help build support. While individual behaviour changes are essential – it is vital that they are supported by the broader policy changes that are required at social, industrial, political and international levels.

The ideas presented here are all collated from the new Zero Carbon Britain: Making it Happen report, which explores ways in which we can overcome the social and political barriers preventing society reaching zero carbon.

You can download the full Making it Happen report here

1) Lorenzoni, I. et al. (2007) Barriers perceived to engaging with climate change among the UK public and their policy implications. Global Environmental Change, 17 (3-4), pp. 445-451.

2) Verplanken, B. and Roy, D. (2016) Empowering interventions to promote sustainable lifestyles: Testing the habit discontinuity hypothesis in a field experiment. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 45, pp. 127-134.

3) Capstick, S. B. and Pidgeon, N.F. (2014) What is climate change scepticism? Examination of the concept using a mixed methods study of the UK public. Global Environmental Change 24, pp. 389-401.

4) Spence, A. et al. (2012) The Psychological Distance of Climate Change. Risk Analysis, 32 (6), pp. 957-972.

5) Kaplan, S. (2000) Human Nature and Environmentally Responsible Behaviour. Journal of Social Issues, 56, pp. 491-508.
6) Campaign for Better Transport (CBT) (2015a) Getting There. How sustainable transport can support new development. June 2015. Campaign for Better Transport: UK.

7) Maby, C. and Owen, A. (2015) Installer Power: The key to unlocking low carbon retrofit in private housing, September. Severn Wye Energy Agency and University of Leeds: UK.

8) Crompton, T. (2017) Values Matter. Contribution to Zero Carbon Britain: Making it Happen. Centre for Alternative Technology.

9) Staddon, S. C. et al. (2016) Intervening to change behaviour and save energy in the workplace: A systematic review of available evidence. Energy Research & Social Science, 17, pp. 30-51

10) Fischer, A. et al. (2011) Energy use, climate change and folk psychology: Does sustainability have a chance? Results from a qualitative study in five European countries. Global Environmental Change, 21, pp. 1025-1034.

11) Griskevicius, V. et al. (2008) Social Norms: An underestimated and underemployed lever for managing climate change.

12) Allcott, H. (2011) Social norms and energy conservation. Journal of Public Economics, 95 (9-10), pp. 1082-1095.
13) Dibb, S. and Fitzpatrick, I. (2014) Let’s talk about meat: changing dietary behaviour for the 21st century. Eating Better: UK.

14) Barth, M. et al. (2016) Still underdetected – Social norms and collective efficacy predict the acceptance of electric vehicles in Germany. Transportation Research Part F: Traffic Psychology and Behaviour, 37, pp. 64–77.

15) Cumberlege, T. et al. (2015) The Case for Protein Diversity: Accelerating the adoption of more sustainable eating patterns in the UK. The Carbon Trust: London, UK.

16) GBS (2009) Denby Dale Passivhaus. Green Building Store.

17) DECC (2014d) DECC LEAF Evaluation, January. Department of Energy and Climate Change: UK.

18) Verplanken, B. et al. (2008) Context change and travel mode choice: Combining the habit discontinuity and selfactivation hypotheses. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 28 (2), pp. 121-127.

19) Epton, T. et al. (2013) A theory-based online health behavior intervention for new university students: study protocol. BMC Public Health. BMC series, 13:107.