Reducing our carbon footprint — how much can individuals achieve?

We all have a responsibility to reduce our carbon footprint — but how much can individuals achieve on their own? Dr Milena Büchs outlines her research which showed that people were not able to reduce their energy use through voluntary action alone. She argues that more radical policy change is required if we are to hit our climate targets.

The latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change special report highlighted the urgency to keep global warming to 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels. The first Green Great Britain Week which is kicking off this week highlights the responsibility of different sectors to speed up carbon reduction. The government, businesses, the voluntary sector and the general public all need to reduce their energy consumption. But how do these sectors compare in their capacity to act on climate change?

The government has sought to encourage individuals to act for a long time now (remember DEFRA’s pro-environmental behaviour change framework?) And, undeniably, we all have a responsibility to reduce our personal carbon footprints as much as possible. However, our research published in Energy Policy indicates that what individuals can do on a voluntary basis may be limited.

In our research, we wanted to find out whether people can be encouraged to reduce their carbon footprint by giving them personalised information on their energy use. We did this in a field experiment with an intervention group and a control group. Participants in the intervention group were taken through a carbon calculator in a face-to-face meeting, and then given personalised tips on carbon reduction.

Participants in both groups completed surveys on their energy use, behaviours, and attitudes to climate change one year before and one year after the intervention. This longitudinal design was important because behaviour change interventions are only effective if they have long-term impacts.

While we found that concern about climate change went up in the intervention group, unfortunately the carbon calculator “nudge” did not encourage them to reduce their carbon footprints. The participant’s energy use in the home, travel, and food consumption did not reduce by any more than people in the control group. 
 The exercise seems to have increased, rather than tackled, the famous “attitude-behaviour gap” — the mismatch between people’s values and their actions. Indeed, qualitative follow-up interviews showed that most participants cared deeply about climate change, but felt unable to change their lifestyles more radically. They identified important barriers to change related to technological infrastructures and dominant social norms.

Pretty much all of the participants said they already tried to save as much electricity and gas in the home as possible by switching off lights and appliances when not in use or by keeping the heating down as much as they could without feeling uncomfortable. It thus seems that more far-reaching improvements in insulation levels and the proportion of renewable electricity in the grid are required to achieve more meaningful reductions in emissions related to home energy consumption.

Many explained that they depended on their cars for many daily activities such as commuting to work, organising child care, shopping and leisure activities because they found public transport options too expensive, unreliable or inconvenient. Considerable investments in public transport infrastructures will be required to tackle these issues.

Social norms remain the largest barrier for people to reduce personal flights (which make up a large proportion of many people’s carbon footprints). Participants were unwilling to give up their “right” to go on holidays abroad. When it comes to meat consumption, personal preferences and perceptions of potential negative health implications of vegetarian or vegan diets were named as important barriers to change.

It is important to interpret these findings carefully. People care about climate change and try to do “their bit” (and a “bit” is all that can be done comfortably at the moment it appears). Giving people personalised information on more radical things they could do does not seem to be enough. In the current context, taking more radical action individually means people have to accept a range of disadvantages compared to others.

Our interview material shows many people strongly support greater government and business action on climate change. If we are to hit our climate targets, the government and businesses need to create infrastructures and policy frameworks which put everyone in the same boat when it comes to reducing their carbon footprints.