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2 November 2021updated 02 Dec 2021 11:42am

Tackling Climate Change from Home

When it comes to the environment, most people have good intentions. But how do we turn them into positive actions?

By Fflur Lawton

Smart Energy GB is the consumer engagement campaign for the rollout of smart meters in Great Britain, and the organisation is currently overseeing one of the biggest carbon-saving consumer engagement campaigns of our generation. With over 25 million smart meters now installed, our experience is that clear and consistent messaging, informed by in-depth behavioural science, can help turn individuals’ good environmental intentions into tangible actions.

If we are to achieve our climate change target of reaching net zero carbon emissions by 2050, we all need to make changes to our behaviours and the way we live our lives.

Generally, public awareness of net zero is high, as 7 in 10 people have a good or fair understanding of what it means, and 26 per cent of people have already made at least one behaviour change to help tackle climate change. While these statistics are encouraging, motivation on its own is not enough to drive sustained behaviour change.

There is a lack of awareness amongst the public of what their role is, and what actions they could take. In fact, new research has revealed that over three quarters (76 per cent) of people in Britain think that it is the responsibility of government and businesses to get the country to net zero, with nearly half being unsure of what individual actions they can personally take to help tackle climate change. 

If this failure to engage consumers isn’t resolved urgently, efforts to reach the 2050 target could be at risk.

A recently published research report, Tackling Climate Change from Home: How to Turn Good Intentions into Positive Actions, written by The Behavioural Architects and commissioned by Smart Energy GB, explores how behavioural science can help engage consumers in climate-friendly behaviours around the home, and investigates the barriers to undertaking those behaviours.

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It is clear from the report that, so far, not enough attention has been given to supporting, encouraging and communicating with households across the country to take action. 

The report identifies five key motivators for adopting energy efficiency behaviours, with the strongest found to be cost saving. This is followed by a desire to protect the planet for future generations, and then by an inherent motivation to waste less. Only a minority are primarily motivated to adopt new behaviours by the desire to feel tech savvy or ‘green.’ 

The research also challenges some commonly accepted assumptions about barriers to taking action. It found that for those identified as being in a vulnerable group, including people aged 75 and older, and those living with a disability or health issue, their condition isn’t generally a barrier to their ability or motivation to carry out energy efficiency behaviours. However, providing more information on ease of action, such as the amount of time required to install energy efficient technology, will be helpful in reassuring these groups and will in turn enable them to undertake more environmentally friendly steps.

In addition, those on lower incomes are often already doing several climate-friendly behaviours in order to save money – such as washing clothes at 30 degrees or under. Cost-saving messaging and information is particularly successful for this group, especially so if broken down into monthly savings and over £10 per month.

In contrast, higher earners are much less likely to be motivated by cost savings and instead respond more positively to messaging which makes them feel tech savvy or ahead of the curve.

The research also highlighted that a different approach is needed depending on your property type, with renting emerging as a significant obstacle to uptake of energy efficiency behaviours. It is much harder to persuade people to get anything that requires installation, such as a smart thermostat or smart meter, because of the perceived – or actual – barrier of getting landlord permission.

In addition, one-off actions like draught proofing are perceived as not worth the effort given that renters won’t enjoy the benefit long term. To counteract this, communications to those in shared accommodation should focus on behaviours as social norms, not as personal preferences. For it to be most effective, however, it needs to be done in tandem alongside other government measures to reduce barriers and increase incentives – in particular for those in the private rented sector.

Age was also found to be an influencing factor, with parents and grandparents more concerned about the future their children and grandchildren will experience, and those who spend time with younger children found to be especially likely to worry about the future. For this group, referencing children or future generations in communications will help to motivate behaviour change. 

Taking these findings into account, the report sets out a series of recommendations for individuals or organisations who are involved in talking to the public about climate change, or encouraging them to take action at home:

1. Make sure that any communications reflect language already used by the public

2. Avoid using the government’s net zero target as a motivator

3. Ensure that communications aren’t negative in tone

4. Use emotional, rather than rational, framing

5. Promote energy efficiency advice alongside climate change articles in the media

6. Wherever possible communicate multiple benefits to carrying out a behaviour ­-­ number one on this list should be cost savings

Whilst progress has been made to reduce our carbon emissions and upgrade our energy system for net zero, a lot of the work to date has been done behind the scenes through regulation and other industry initiatives. For the next phase of the transition, consumer engagement and action will be critical and there is therefore a need for the Government and other organisations to focus on this challenge, remove barriers to the uptake of low carbon technologies, and communicate clearly to the public on what they can do to make a difference. 

Fflur Lawton is head of public affairs at Smart Energy GB. Smart Energy GB is the consumer engagement campaign for the roll-out of smart meters in Great Britain, and the organisation is currently overseeing one of the biggest carbon saving consumer engagement campaigns of our generation. With over 25 million smart meters now installed, our experience is that clear and consistent messaging, informed by in-depth behavioural science, can help turn individuals’ good environmental intentions into tangible actions.

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