Policy BriefingChanging our ways?Behaviour change and the climate crisisKey findings from the Cambridge Sustainability Commissionon Scaling Behaviour Change

Photo creditsCover: Red building, aircon: Chromatograph, Hong Kong. Green building: Chris Barbalis, Italy.Inside cover: Plane image: John McArthur, Mississauga, Canada. Dutch bicycles: Shyam, Delft, The Netherlands.

Can we change the way we liveto address the climate crisis?It is increasingly clear that alongside shifts in policy, service provision andtechnological innovation, far-reaching changes in lifestyles are also requiredif we are to avoid dangerous levels of global heating. After a long period ofneglect, sustainable behaviour change is now rising up the climate policyagenda. The most recent IPCC and UNEP Emissions Gap reports have begunto devote more attention to the role of behaviour change in reaching ambitiousclimate goals, and governments increasingly view it as a necessary element oftheir climate change strategies.1Scaling and maintaining sustainable behaviourchange at the level and speed now required,however, presents a different order of challenge forthose seeking to advance climate action. Views aredivided on the significance of behaviour changerelative to other drivers of emissions trajectories, andon how best to apportion responsibility for emissionswhen agency to address them is so unevenlydistributed. On the one hand, there are those whosee it as a key site of change, both in terms of directand indirect effects on emissions from households’consumer choices where according to someestimates, households are responsible for 72% ofglobal greenhouse gas emissions as a result of theirconsumption behaviour.2 But the significance ofbehaviour change is broader in terms of the licensevoluntary action by citizens gives to governmentsand businesses to be more ambitious in their climatepolicies.On the other hand, there are real concerns aboutplacing the burden for societal change on individualshoulders, where there is often limited agency tochange which can lead to a backlash from citizensrather than positive engagement. Seen another way,behaviours will change whether we like it or not;dramatic behaviour change will be brought aboutby adapting to the effects of climate change interms of where we live, what we eat and what formsof energy and transport systems are viable in awarming world. The question is then whether we canmanage the shift to more sustainable behaviours ina more proactive way that protects the needs of thepoorest members of society.72%According to someestimates, householdsare responsible for 72%of global greenhousegas emissions as a resultof their consumptionbehaviour.2These were some of the issues addressed by theCambridge Sustainability Commission on ScalingBehaviour Change, an expert panel of 31 individualexperts from a variety of disciplines, and a networkof practitioners, involved in sustainable behaviourchange. This briefing summarises key findings fromthe report of the Commission3 based on an analysisof existing literature, historical experience andinsights from practitioners of social and behaviourchange. Rather than promoting one theory ofchange, it proposes an ecosystem of transformationthat bridges structural and more ‘top-down’approaches to enabling change with more ‘bottomup’ and citizen-led initiatives that seek to disruptbusiness-as-usual by delivering social and culturalchange in values, behaviours and politics.1UNEP (2020) Emissions Gap report. Nairobi: UNEP. IPCC (2018). Summary for Policymakers. In: Global Warming of 1.5 C. An IPCC Special Report on theimpacts of global warming of 1.5 C above pre-industrial levels and related global greenhouse gas emission pathways, in the context of strengthening theglobal response to the threat of climate change, sustainable development, and efforts to eradicate poverty.2Hertwich, E.G. and G. Peters (2009). ‘Carbon Footprint of Nations: A Global, Trade-Linked Analysis’ Environmental Science & Technology 43 (16): 6414-6420.3Newell, P., F. Daley and M. Twena (2021). The Cambridge Sustainability Commission on Scaling Behaviour Change.

The report shows that confronting the climatecrisis means facing up to some uncomfortabletruths. The first is that the lifestyles of the world’srichest citizens are unsustainable and their carbonemissions need to fall dramatically. Recent studieshave highlighted the disproportionate responsibilityof the world’s richest people for driving climatechange.Over the period 1990–2015, nearly half ofthe total growth in absolute emissionswas due to the richest 10%, with thewealthiest 5% alone contributing overa third (37%).4 The goals of the ParisAgreement on climate change cannotbe achieved without radical changesto lifestyles and shifts in behaviouramongst the world’s richer citizens.This means we need to nuance the debate aboutindividual responsibility because it is a responsibilitythat is not evenly shared within or betweensocieties. It is also not just about individuals. Incontrast to the focus of most discussions aboutindividual and household behaviour, this is aboutthe collective behaviours of business, cities andgovernment. It is about re-thinking the fair provisionof mobility, housing, energy and food: meeting keyneeds in ways that lock-in lower carbon pathwayswhile simultaneously enhancing social inclusion.Effective action needs to combine individual andsystem change in mutually reinforcing ways thatratchet up ambition. Social mobilisation is key tothis.But are such changes possible? The world iscurrently living through an unintended andunplanned live experiment in collective behaviourchange in the face of a global pandemic. Patternsof work and travel have been forced to change, foodsystems have had to adapt and whole economicsectors restructured. The state has been stirredinto interventions which are unprecedentedin peacetime, mobilising resources to securelivelihoods and whole industries. The extent towhich this experience sheds light on our abilityto tackle the climate crisis is contested - as is therelevance of previous historical examples of rapidbehaviour change.5 But it does expose some of theopportunities and limits of orchestration, persuasionand enforcement that run through debates onbehaviour change, affording the opportunityto observe in real time whether and how massbehaviours can be rapidly transformed, and at whatcost.Despite a growing academic literature on behaviourchange in disciplines as diverse as economics,sociology, psychology, science and technologystudies and politics, there has been less attentionto the question of scalability that we focus on here:key points of leverage and traction that bring aboutshifts of the scale (as well as speed) now required totackle the climate emergency.Photo credit: Edrece Stansberry, 2020.Kartha, S., Kemp-Benedict, E., Ghosh, E., Nazareth, A. and Gore, T. (2020). The Carbon Inequality Era: An assessment of the global distribution ofconsumption emissions among individuals from 1990 to 2015 and beyond. Joint Research Report. Stockholm Environment Institute and Oxfam International.5 Simms, A. (2019). Climate and Rapid Behaviour Change: What do we know so far? Rapid Transition Alliance.4

Key findings from the report:1. Individual and system change go hand in handIt is clear we need both individual and systemchange: the key challenge is to ensure that theyreinforce one another. By thinking more holisticallyabout ‘behaviour’, we can move the debate beyondthe dominant focus on individual and householddecisions. There are many unspoken assumptionsabout what ‘behaviour’ is, often reduced to smallscale consumer actions. But personal action can alsobe linked to other forms of collective action, socialand political influence, and engagement with thewider world. This shift in approach allows for a moreempowering view of personal agency that is betterequipped to drive social and economic change.6However, in order to achieve the required scaleand depth of change, we need to intervene at allpoints within an ecosystem of transformation thatextends from rewiring the economy, to changesin work, income and infrastructure, as well asshifting patterns of supply and demand, throughto protecting and expanding spaces of social andcitizen innovation.2. One planet living: towards ‘strong’ sustainabilityParameters need to be set to enable society to livewithin key ecological thresholds, which will requirea shift in thinking from efficient production andconsumption to embracing ideas of sufficiency.7Issues of rationing, allowances and quotasincreasingly arise when discussing the need to scalebehaviour change in line with 1.5 degree trajectoriesto achieve the goals of the Paris Agreement.8 Activecitizen engagement about these limits and how theycan be fairly enforced is key to their acceptance.Public engagement also needs to be driven byanticipated gains in wellbeing9 from a shorterworking week, avoiding unnecessary travel, andadopting healthier diets, for example.This means addressing the sources of overconsumption by revisiting deep-seated ideas aboutgrowth and taking a more integrated approach towellbeing. But it also requires a more sophisticatedunderstanding of the social and cultural drivers ofover-consumption: addressing advertising and themedia’s role in the normalisation and reification ofhigh consumption behaviours. To do this, ‘choiceediting’ needs to take place whereby governments,businesses and those with direct control overproduction restrict the availability of high carbonproducts and services. Undoing unsustainablebehaviours is a whole lot harder than preventingunsustainable products from coming to market inthe first place.6 Capstick, S., Lorenzoni, I., Corner, A., & Whitmarsh, L. (2015). ‘Prospects for radical emissions reduction through behavior and lifestyle change’. Carbonmanagement, 5(4), 429-445.7 Princen, T. (2005). The Logic of Sufficiency, Cambridge: MIT Press; Princen, T., M. Maniates, and K. Conca (2002) (eds) Confronting Consumption CambridgeMA: MIT Press.8 Akenji, L., Lettenmeier, M., Koide, R., Toivio, V., & Amellina, A. (2019). 1.5-Degree Lifestyles: Targets and options for reducing lifestyle carbon footprints.Retrieved from 0199 Jackson, T. (2011). Prosperity without Growth: Economics for a Finite Planet, London: Earthscan.

3. Just transitionsTo be effective and socially accepted, shifts inbehaviour need to address social and economicjustice and, at the very least, not further entrenchexisting inequalities. Placing economic justice atthe heart of efforts to scale behaviour change hasthe advantage of reducing the inequality betweenthe so-called polluter elite10 and the poorest groupsin society who lack access to affordable energy,housing, transport and food. There are importantracial, class and gender dimensions to accessand responsibility, which all interventions needto explicitly address.11 This will be a prerequisiteto broadening the conversation about behaviourchange beyond silos of privilege and spheres ofvoluntarism among those already committed toenvironmental action.Infrastructures, income, location and social statushave a huge bearing on peoples’ ability to modifybehaviours around transport, energy, housing andfood. Key intervention points lie in creating enablingenvironments that facilitate, incentivise and lock-inmore sustainable behaviours among broad sectionsof society. Examples include low-cost electricvehicle bus provision and properly insulated homesto address energy poverty and reduce emissions.In a global context, ‘lifestyle leapfrogging’12 cansupport the adoption of more sustainable pathways,avoiding unsustainable lock-in in the first place.From affordable public transport to green tariffsfor renewable energy, enormous power resides ingovernments, corporations and cities to chart newpathways, communicate clearly the need for changeand hold themselves accountable for delivering it.Kenner, D. (2019). Carbon Inequality: The Role of the Richest in Climate Change Abingdon: Routledge.T.G. Reames, T.G (2016). ‘Targeting energy justice: exploring spatial, racial/ethnic andsocioeconomic disparities in urban residential heating energy efficiency’, Energy Policy 97: 549–558; Patnaik, S., S. Jha (2020). ‘Caste, class and gender indetermining access to energy: a critical review of LPG adoption in India’, Energy Research and Social Science. 67; Newell, P. (2021). ‘Race and the politics ofenergy transitions’ Energy Research & Social Science 7112Schroeder, P., & Anantharaman, M. (2017). “Lifestyle Leapfrogging” in Emerging Economies: Enabling Systemic Shifts to Sustainable Consumption.Journal of Consumer Policy, 40(1), 3-23.1011

Photo Credit: “Presenting an outline: layers of the Citizens’ Assembly” by nhscitizen is licensed with CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.To view a copy of this license, visit 4. Governing change: enabling a power shiftScaling behaviour change in line with the goals ofthe Paris Agreement will not come about withoutshifts in power. Transformational change will onlybe possible if incumbent power is rolled back, newpolitical spaces are created, and representation isenhanced for those most vulnerable to the effectsof climate change who have the greatest stake ineffectively tackling the issue. This requires importantinnovations in governance to deepen participationand representation, and ensure broad socialownership of transition processes, such as citizens’assemblies, to foster dialogue and engagementabout the complex trade-offs involved in getting toa zero-carbon economy. The recent report of the UKClimate Assembly, for example, proposed a series ofprogressive measures targeting carbon-intensivebehaviours, such as frequent flyer taxes, supportfor dietary shifts and bans on SUVs.13 But it alsorequires moves to take money out of politics throughcontrols on party donations and directorships, aswell as closing the revolving doors that operatebetween politicians and corporations, so thatdemocracies are fit for purpose in tackling theclimate crisis.14Change will of course be achieved in differentways in different places. There is no one theory ofchange - or behaviour change - that applies to all1314settings. The capacity and view of the appropriaterole of government, the market and civil societyvaries hugely around the world. This should make uswary of blanket and universal policy prescriptionsfor behaviour change. There are also importantdifferences by sector. People have more control overdietary choices, for example, than how they get towork or how their homes are heated and cooled. Yeteven with food, there are also deep cultural, identitybased and religious sensitivities at play that need tobe engaged with.It is clear, nevertheless, that social mobilisation iscrucial to pressuring governments and businessesto show leadership and accountability for majordecisions that lock-in carbon-intensive behaviours.Examples include the divestment movement andcommunity energy programmes, as well as pressurefor pedestrianisation and car-free cities, and againstairport expansion. Many alternative economies havebeen built from the bottom-up through proactivedesign, as well reactively in the context of crisis,as we have seen with in response to the Covid-19pandemic. Harnessing this social innovation andmobilisation towards the goal of scaling behaviourchange is vital to the success of collective efforts.Citizen Assembly UK. (2020). The Path to Net Zero: Climate Assembly UK Full Report. Retrieved from, P. and A. Martin (2020). The role of the state in the politics of disruption & acceleration London: Climate KIC.

5. Transforming society by ‘deep’ scaling changeDominant approaches to scaling behaviour changeemphasise numbers of people adopting behavioursin a generic and socially un-differentiated way. Thisserves to de-contextualise the nature of changeand obscures where the predominant responsibilityand agency for action lies, as well as overlooksimportant contextual differences in what worksand where. Such approaches often emphasise size,reach and roll-out, and often fall into the scalar trap:the misconception that what works in one place willnecessarily work elsewhere, or that small changescan be automatically and unproblematically scaled.What is to be scaled, how and by whom are vital yetneglected questions that need to be a central part ofstrategies going forward.Many approaches imply shallow scaling:mainstreaming without disrupting key trends aroundconsumption and production, work and growth orwhat have been called ‘plug and play’ approacheswhere new technology is added to the mix but theprovision of the service and levels of demand staythe same.15Deeper scaling needs to be transformative: fromthe individual to the systemic level. Because‘shallow’ and ‘deep’ scaling will, in practice,operate concurrently within and across societiesover time, spiral scaling seeks to enhance thefeedbacks between the two: moving from alinear understanding of scaling, towards multipletransformations across diverse contexts in anupward-moving, ‘spiral of sustainability’. Thisinvolves value shifts and culturing transformation,as well as concerted efforts to ‘scale back’ existing,unsustainable ways of doing things and incumbentcontrol over systems, infrastructures, financeand production. This is crucial to addressingthe root causes of over-consumption. There is ahuge amount of work to do in nurturing valuesand culturing practices of care and community,whereby human needs can be met in sustainableand less materialistic ways, guided by attemptsto imagine alternative pathways that repositiontoday’s economy as abnormal, impermanent andunsustainable.16Photo Credit: 4 Day Week Campaign, London, UK.1516Ibid.Hopkins, R. (2019). From What Is to What If: Unleashing the Power of Imagination to Create the Future We Want. Chelsea Green Publishing.

6. Focusing on behaviour change ‘hotspots’In the context of climate change, immediatechallenges for behaviour change are reducingthe lifestyle emissions of the polluter elite andconcentrating on the consumption hotspots ofaviation, food and housing. The carbon emissionsof the average European diet are around 1,070kgCO2 equivalent per year,17 but the consumption ofmeat, eggs and dairy make up 83% of those GHGemissions,18 indicating the vast scope for moresustainable food practices.For aviation,19 recent research estimates thatbetween 2% and 4% of the global population flewinternationally in 2018, while just 1% of the world’spopulation was responsible for 50% of CO2 fromcommercial aviation. It is clear that for gains tobe protected and scale to be achieved, enablingenvironments need to support change in a way thatrecognises the uneven agency people have to meettheir basic needs.7. Amplifying changeConnecting these intervention points throughcycles of reciprocity is vital, whereby leadershipby individuals, communities and cities is matchedby government leadership that opens up spacefor further bottom-up experimentation. A varietyof actors can help to amplify and accelerate theprocess of change. There is significant scope, forexample, to reach out to new allies and those thatwield disproportionate influence over everydayconsumption choices, especially in wealthiersocieties. So called ‘intermediary organisations’such as estate agents and car dealers have akey role to play as shapers of key consumptiondecisions. Initiatives which seek to work withthese groups could have a big impact, but need tochallenge the incentive structures within whichsome intermediaries operate. More broadly schools,community and religious organisations20 andworkplaces are also potential sites for acceleratingand diffusing positive lifestyle change.Funders and philanthropists have an importantrole to play as innovative ‘scalers’ of sustainablebehaviour change: namely, as: (1) incubators ofideas, inspiration and experimentation; (2) asconnectors between actors, institutions andarenas (uniting those pursuing similar goals, insideand outside the philanthropic and sustainabilitycommunities); and (3) as mobilisers of change- providing flexible, rapid-response fundingto facilitate the development and roll-out ofinnovations and practices into new spaces whenevents present windows of opportunity for rapidbehaviour change to take hold.Photo Credit: Melany Rochester, Washington DC, USA.Sandström, V., Valin, H., Krisztin, T., Havlík, P., Herrero, M., & Kastner, T. (2018). ’The role of trade in the greenhouse gas footprints of EU diets’. Global FoodSecurity, 19, 48-55. , H. (2020).”Environmental impacts of food production”. Published online at Retrieved from: s-of-food’ [Online Resource].1819Gössling, S., A. Humpe, (2020). ‘The global scale, distribution and growth of aviation: Implications for climate change’, Global Environmental Change, (65).Sovacool, B., Turnheim, B., Martiskainen, M., Brown, D., & Kivimaa, P. (2020). ‘Guides or gatekeepers? Incumbent-oriented transition intermediaries in a lowcarbon era’. Energy Research & Social Science, 66, 101490.

Key findings from the reportThe debate on behaviour change needs to moveon. We need an account of the role of behaviourchange that is more political and social, that bringsquestions of power and social justice to the fore inorder to appreciate how questions of responsibilityand agency are unevenly distributed within andbetween societies. This leads to a more holisticunderstanding of behaviour, as just one node withinan ecosystem of transformation that bridges theindividual and systemic.While there is a tendency to talk in terms of ‘nudges’and ‘tools’ for behaviour change,21 the challengeis more profound and deeply political. There needsto be a shift of power away from those actors andinterests that control the unsustainable economywe have, the institutions that govern it - in whichcitizens are often poorly represented - and thesocieties and cultures built around the wasteful useof resources, which leave us on course for climatechaos.Rather than generalizing accounts of the needfor behaviour change by all individuals, we haveemphasised the role of behaviour change amongbusinesses, cities and states, and of particularinfluential and high-consuming social groupswithin societies. We have highlighted key ‘hotspots’of behaviour in the realms of travel, diet andhousing that need to be given priority. We havealso emphasised questions of governance, socialmobilisation and the processes of collective steeringnecessary to facilitate large scale change acrossa diversity of actors, sectors and regions, in placeof the dominant emphasis on individuals andhouseholds.Only when all these behaviours have changed canwe say we have been successful. The goals of theParis Agreement on climate change cannot beachieved without radical changes to lifestyles andshifts in behaviour, especially among the wealthiestmembers of society, and on the part not just ofindividuals, but all actors in society.Further readingNewell, P., F. Daley and M. Twena (2021).The Cambridge Sustainability Commission on Scaling Behaviour Change.21Thaler, R. H., & Sunstein, C. R. (2009). Nudge: Improving decisions about health, wealth, and happiness. Penguin.

Changing our ways?Behaviour change and the climate crisis

opportunities and limits of orchestration, persuasion and enforcement that run through debates on behaviour change, affording the opportunity to observe in real time whether and how mass . Photo credit: Edrece Stansberry, 2020. 6 Capstick, S., Lorenzoni, I., Corner, A., & Whitmarsh,