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Fix the Planet newsletter: Climate action needs more than technofixes

Why climate action will require both societal and behavioural change to be effective

Environment 24 February 2022

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Prof. Paul Ekins ,UCL answers questions from delegates during a panel session with Fernanda Balata and Modi Mwatsama

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This is Fix the Planet, the weekly climate change newsletter that reminds you there are reasons for hope in science and technology around the world. To receive it in your inbox, sign up here.

Welcome back to Fix the Planet. Last week the newsletter took a break while I was in Germany’s Ahr valley reporting on the aftermath of last year’s devastating floods in the region. The flooding was exactly the sort of climate impact that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is expected to warn about in a landmark report due out on Monday. You can read my report on the Ahr valley here.

Today’s newsletter, however, is about climate solutions, not impacts and adaptations. I often focus on technofixes, energy innovation and big bits of hardware, from battery-powered planes and unusual new forms of energy storage to mini nuclear plants and tidal power.

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But as the UK’s Climate Change Committee has made clear, 62 per cent of the measures needed to meet the country’s net zero goal will require some form of behaviour or societal change: from diet shifts to overhauls in how we heat our homes. That’s why this week I spoke to Patrick Devine-Wright at the University of Exeter, UK, about the role the social sciences have to play in hitting net zero.

How can social sciences help cut our emissions?

Earlier this month, the UK government funded a new £6.25 million climate and environment social science programme, headed by Devine-Wright. One of the project’s key aims will be to help researchers from different disciplines, such as geographers and psychologists, work in a more interdisciplinary manner, and prevent social scientists being siloed off from engineers and other players. “In the new landscape of big, complex problems like climate change, single disciplines are unlikely to tackle the problem,” says Devine-Wright. A key sign that social sciences are coming to the forefront of climate action will arrive in early April with another big report from the IPCC, titled Mitigation of Climate Change. For the first time the report will include a social sciences chapter.

Is the UK doing enough to encourage the behaviour change needed to reach net zero?

In the scholarly world, the UK is doing “really well”, says Devine-Wright, because it’s home globally recognised experts on behaviour change, such as Lorraine Whitmarsh at the Centre for Climate Change and Social Transformations. In the political world, he says the risk is behaviour change sounds like telling people what to do. “It requires a lot of fairly courageous leadership in opening up spaces for conversation with society about things that up to now people have taken for granted, like eating beef whenever you want and flying to another country for a weekend because you can and it’s affordable,” he says.

Social science disciplines like political science and sociology can help with those conversations, he says, citing the way local authorities have emulated a recent national “citizen’s assembly”, called Climate Assembly UK. But he says those efforts need to be scaled up, and the government needs to talk about behaviour change and the social sciences with the same level of ambition as it does about hydrogen and carbon capture and storage. “Technologies on their own are not going to solve the problem, they have to be embedded in a societal context,” he says. “That narrow technocentric perspective is something social scientists would like to address and critique.” Devine-Wright isn’t alone on this. Patrick Vallance, chief scientific adviser to the UK government, has said that the country needs more action on behaviour change.

The UK government has said no one will be forced to make changes such as scrapping their existing car. Is that the right approach?

The government is lagging behind the public when it comes to environmental changes, says Devine-Wright: “The degree of societal support for curbs on flying or restrictions on meat-eating is surprisingly high. I’m not sure that that message has got through to government yet.” For example, pre-pandemic, two-thirds of UK adults thought  the amount people fly should be reined in to tackle climate change. “If you look at the research findings, people recognise there’s a need for transformation,” says Devine-Wright, but politicians don’t seem keen to go there yet. The UK government last year briefly published a plan for curbing flying and changing diets, noting “significant behaviour change” is needed to cut emissions. It was then swiftly deleted.

Is enough effort being made to convey the “why” behind the behaviour changes needed? And what are the best motivations to encourage people to change?

“We have clarity on the [climate] targets for 2050, but not on the narrative [for why],” says Devine-Wright. He says the onus is on policymakers to come up with them. Devine-Wright says research shows that narratives around not wasting things – such as food and energy – “really land” with people. Others include stressing the cost of inaction on climate change, and side benefits such as streets being less polluted and congested.

What are the thorniest issues that social scientists might be able to help solve?

Eating less meat and more plant-based food is a crucial change, says Devine-Wright. But doing that will require bigger conversations with landowners and farmers, as well as with local people about what sort of landscapes they want – fields of miscanthus being grown to burn in power stations, or farmland being rewilded and more food imported. With flying, he says in the absence of any serious low-carbon technologies, the key issue is working out how to fairly distribute the flights that are taken. A frequent flyer levy has been posited by some as a way to tackle the fact that an “elite minority” are responsible for most flights (2 per cent of people take half of all France’s flights, for example), but it remains to be seen whether politicians can be convinced.

More Fixes

  • Could artificial whale poo help restore biodiversity and tackle climate change? David King at the University of Cambridge thinks so – read more here.
  • Germany’s decision to freeze the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline from Russia could have big ramifications for the country’s future energy policy, with an accelerated push for renewables. But it could also risk Germany’s timeline for phasing out coal power, say experts. Story here.

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