Individual and structural level action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions: beyond recycling

One of the key questions for anyone concerned about climate change mitigation is: “what must we do about it?” For climate change communication and engagement projects that translates to: “what recommendation should we be giving to people or policy makers in order to reduce emissions?”

In climate change action one might distinguish between individual level actions to reduce emissions, such as flying less, collective action, like protests, or structural level action, for example renewing the transportation infrastructure.

Many people will be familiar with messages from a broad range of sources, encouraging them to change their behaviour. For example, the United Nation’s ‘take action’ website, proposes: “Acting on climate change is everyone’s responsibility. Here’s how you can do your part”. The suggested behaviours to engage in at home include buying minimally packaged goods, recycling, mending and reusing, turning down the thermostat and planting trees. At work and on the go one of their recommendations is printing less, but also replacing air and car miles by other means of transport.

Despite years of behaviour change campaigns, researchers have found that although many people support pro-environmental values, this is not necessarily reflected in behaviours, which has been described as the value-action gap. Although possibly too simplistic as a sole explanation, people’s behaviour can at least in part be explained by the more ‘environmentally-friendly’ action often being the less convenient and affordable one. For example, plastic packaging is widespread in UK supermarkets and flying or driving within the UK are often cheaper than getting the train. A study examining the barriers to engagement with climate change mitigation found that people in the UK referred to unavailability of affordable and reliable public transport as opposed to the convenience of cars.

Furthermore, we live in a society in which consumption is constantly encouraged, not only through a lucrative advertisement industry. Behaviour change campaigns would struggle to equal their budget, even if they wanted to reverse advertisements’ messaging to reduce consumption. The individual behaviour change approach perhaps does not sufficiently take into account that income and consumption in fact significantly influence the level of carbon emissions.

In its most explicit form the criticism of individual behaviour change approaches boils down to the argument that it is flawed because it distracts from addressing the heart of the problem (production and the existing economic system) by reinforcing false solutions. Research has found that members of the UK public acknowledge, to varying degrees, that marketing mechanisms encourage consumption and associated cultural values, and desired a change in society based on environmental and community values.

People tend to agree with the need for individuals to change their behaviour and show some willingness to engage themselves. Research by Defra (2007) showed that at least half of the people surveyed believed that recycling more, secondly changes in car use, and reducing electricity and gas usage in the home would have a major impact on decreasing climate change. Amongst the most common behaviours which people self-reported to engage in already were recycling, reducing food waste, and reducing gas and electricity use at home. The most resistance was felt towards reducing car use and flights (over a quarter of the sample). Similarly, another study found that recycling was the most common activity people engaged in out of concern for climate change and the authors pointed out the divergence between intention and impact.

People also expressed some reluctance to significantly changing their lifestyle because it was perceived to involve great discomfort and a sacrifice in standard of living. Furthermore, one commonly found reason for not doing more themselves, was the sense that individual action would have little impact on climate change. Additionally, perceived limited political action and lack of commitment from the British (and US) government, as well as from businesses and industry, can be a significant barrier for personal engagement. Rather than just being seen as attributing responsibility to other actors, when taken seriously this view shows a public desire for more structural intervention by those who are perceived to have greater means to intervene. This is underlined by the finding that, even when willing to engage in behaviour change, people noted their actions were constrained by the infrastructures.

Does this mean that people should stop following any such pro-environmental behaviour advice and wait for others, such as government or businesses to act? No, not by any means. With some of these structural changes people’s behaviours will have to change, because the individual and structural levels are linked. Reducing the high emission behaviours is one way, but the point is that on a societal level much more is needed to find measures that go far beyond recycling. Less consumption and local organising can enable communities to take things into their own hands (e.g. regional energy production). More political engagement could pressure governments and industries to deliver. Government regulation would go some way towards counteracting people’s feelings of ineffectiveness, and changes in infrastructure, such as housing and transport systems, would be welcomed and enable the desired behaviours. Phasing out the use of fossil fuels in energy production and replacing them with a low carbon energy system would also find support amongst the public. There aren’t ready made answers for this unprecedented challenge, but it is worth acknowledging capitalism and possible alternatives, in order to reconsider what kind of society and economy will allow everyone to live well, without exploiting others, our environment and destroying life on earth.

By Dr Sarah Becker, University of Cardiff

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