The world’s top climate scientists have delivered a wealth of suggestions for driving lifestyle and behaviour change in support of the net zero transition – here are the key takeaways

The breadth of climate solutions contained within the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) latest landmark dossier is almost as formidable as the pace and scale at which they are so urgently needed.

To stand a chance of limiting global warming to 1.5C by the end of the decade – a chance that is now wafer thin – global greenhouse gas emissions need to peak no later than 2025. Emissions, which are currently rising again in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, must then fall by a monumental 43 per cent by the end of the decade, which is just eight years away.

Pause for a moment to consider what that means for the global economy, and such an undertaking can seem mindboggling. Delivering on the goals set out by the IPCC does not just mean shifting financial flows towards the green economy, generating electricity from renewable sources, and switching to EVs en masse – although all of that is crucial. As the IPCC made explicit in this week’s report, it also means transforming societal, cultural, and consumer behaviours. The implications for businesses of this dual technological and sociological revolution are huge.

It would therefore be wrong to describe the IPCC’s work as solely concerning the science and technologies underpinning climate change – i.e. the worrying impacts of rising emissions and warming temperatures and how to decarbonise infrastructure – as its scope has clearly and necessarily expanded far beyond that, encompassing swathes of evidence and implications based on social and behavioural science, as well as market economics.

The IPCC’s recommendations for sociocultural change should therefore be critical reading for businesses of all stripes. To that end, BusinessGreen has combed through the huge tranche of documents published this week by the IPCC to draw out the top societal, cultural, and behavioural takeaways for businesses:


1. Sociocultural change has significant decarbonisation potential

Understandably, the focus for decarbonisation tends to mostly be on technologies, infrastructure, and finance, as well as individual sectors such as transport, energy, and agriculture – all of which are mission critical for the net zero transition.

But as the IPCC report emphasises, broader policies that induce lifestyle or behaviour changes can “open up a broader range of mitigation options”. In essence, getting society on board with the net zero transition can accelerate emission reduction efforts, make it easier to deploy low carbon technologies and infrastructure, and reduce the overall cost of building a net zero emission economy.

Overall, the report estimates that when backed by policy support social, cultural, and behaviour changes can slash emissions by as much as five per cent in the short term, before unlocking further emissions cuts over the next three decades.

“With policy support, sociocultural options, and behavioural change can reduce global greenhouse gas emissions of end-use sectors by at least five per cent rapidly, with most of the potential in developed countries, and more until 2050, if combined with improved infrastructure design and access,” the report states.

Such a conclusion only underscores the huge role policymakers, advertisers, and businesses can play when they use their platforms to drive up public awareness of climate change and the net zero transition.


2. Consumption habits must transform, particularly in richer nations

Some of the IPCC’s statistics, if not wholly surprising, are nevertheless sobering for anyone living and working in the planet’s richer regions.

The top 10 per cent of households worldwide by per capita emissions contribute between 34 to 45 per cent of global, consumption-based household greenhouse gas emissions, according to the report. In contrast, those households in the bottom 50 per cent of per capita emissions, contribute just 13 to 15 per cent of total greenhouse gases.

The inequalities inherent in the climate crisis, and who is most responsible for it, are plain to see. But if consumers and businesses in developed countries have by far the biggest carbon footprint, they also have the biggest potential to drive change, and deliver rapid decarbonisation, according to the IPCC.

“Individuals with high socio-economic status contribute disproportionately to emissions and have the highest potential for emissions reductions, e.g., as citizens, investors, consumers, role models, and professionals,” it states.

Consequently, the question of how to spur lower carbon behaviour change among the wealthy represents a huge challenge for the net zero transition. And the report offers some interesting, if potentially controversial, answers. Firstly, it argues that there is an urgent need to address so-called ‘status consumption’, described in the report as “consumption of goods and services which publicly demonstrates prestige”. In effect, it suggests a cultural transformation is needed to encourage richer people to avoid buying things they don’t need just to show off about them, arguing that such a shift in thinking could unlock sizeable carbon savings.

Moreover, it suggests a lever for encouraging this change would be to levy higher taxes on the wealthier – and more carbon intensive – echelons of society. “High status – often high carbon – item consumption may be reduced by taxing absolute wealth without compromising well-being,” the report states.

Such redistributive policy suggestions are unlikely to sit comfortably with some right-leaning policymakers, and it is worth noting that the proposal is not included in the 65-page ‘summary for policymakers’ document put together by the authors of the report and approved by governments. However, given the IPCC report is a distillation of reams of research papers, it is not a policy recommendation that would have been made without evidence of its potential effectiveness.


3. The media, advertising, and ‘influencers’ are key

The report is scathing about the media and advertising industries with regards to their role in sowing the seeds of climate misinformation, both historically and in the present.

It points out that the “propagation of scientifically misleading information by organised counter-movements has fuelled polarisation, with negative implications for climate policy”, even going so far as to argue that wider engagement with the climate crisis does not necessarily lead to pro-climate-mitigation support, thanks to misinformation from those opposed to climate action.

However, the report is also filled with suggestions as to how effective communications can be in spurring greener behaviours, given how “the media shapes the public discourse about climate mitigation”.

It cites studies that show global media coverage across 59 countries has been growing, almost doubling from around 47,000 articles in 2016/17, to around 87,000 articles last year, and argues that “generally, the media representation of climate science has increased and become more accurate over time”.

But to shift the narrative in favour of rapid green behaviour and policy changes, the role of the media, advertisers, and ‘influencers’ is critical, as public and consumer preferences are “malleable and can align with a cultural shift”, the report suggests.

Social influencers, thought leaders, and respected community members can help “increase the adoption of low carbon technologies, behaviours and lifestyles”, it states, citing research that “between 10 per cent and 30 per cent of committed individuals are required to set new social norms”. And it is not just the media and corporates that can establish these norms. Trusted and influential actors such as building managers, landlords, energy efficiency installers, car dealers, and technology installers are also well positioned to educate consumers and drive behaviour change, the report notes.

So how best to use that influence? A key factor it “choice architecture” – or, how choices are presented to consumers – according to the report. That, combined with price signals, ‘nudges’, and making green options the default, such as through automatic enrolment in greener energy provision or pensions, can all contribute towards reducing energy consumption and emissions. “Judicious labelling, framing, and communication of social norms can also increase the effect of mandates, subsidies, or taxes,” the report argues.

Such signals are to prove crucial in determining the pace of the net zero over the course of the current decade, with trends such as dietary shifts, food waste reduction, the adoption of low carbon heating and cooling systems, and the use of green transport options such as EVs, public transit, and walking and cycling networks all likely to prove critical if emissions are to peak in the next few years.


4. Plant-based diets can have a huge impact

Individual and systemic change is sometimes framed as a binary choice when it comes to climate action, as if the two are entirely separate, rather than deeply connected, and mutually reinforcing.

The IPCC report does stress the dangers of corporate advertising and brand strategies being used “to deflect corporate responsibility to individuals or aim to appropriate climate care sentiments in their own brand-building”.

Yet it also makes clear that personal action can serve to shape the net zero transition. For one, it notes the huge impact that climate campaigners, direct action, and demonstrations have had and can have on the wider discourse that shifts public perceptions and drives policy changes. The public may not always like disruption to their lives caused by protests, but the IPCC report states that “collective action and social organising are crucial to shift the possibility space of public policy on climate change mitigation”.

And few issues provide a clearer rebuke to the idea that individual action is futile than the potential impact of societal shifts towards more plant-heavy diets, which the IPCC report concludes hold huge potential to drive down emissions – perhaps even more so than in any other area of the economy.

Indeed, sociocultural efforts to significantly reduce meat and dairy consumption could slash mostly non-CO2 greenhouse gas emissions by a median value of 1.9 gigatonnes, and that’s even before considering the additional positive climate impacts from freeing up land and reforestation, according to the report. Add the latter benefits into the mix, and the potential for decarbonisation from simple changes in diet reach as high as seven gigatonnes, it contends.

What’s more, shifting towards plant-based eating dovetails with improving wellbeing through healthier lifestyle choices, and by harnessing ‘choice architecture’ tactics and initiatives, companies and policymakers have a major opportunity to help turn the dial on greener dietary change.


5. Sociocultural climate efforts can have immediate and long-term impacts

Given the miniscule and shrinking window for action is global emissoins are to peak by 2025, the focus on actions that can deliver immediate decarbonisation is of monumental importance. Green infrastructure investments are essential, but they can take decades to deliver. Changes in behaviour can help reduce emissions today.

This potential is most obvious and urgent with issues such as energy efficiency, where better advice and information can encourage consumers to take actions that can slash emissions, while also helping their bank balances amidst a cost of living crisis. Much the same goes for sustainable travel options such as walking and cycling, where evidence shows provision of safe and clear bike infrastructure rapidly attracts new cyclists, and cuts down on private car use.

In other areas, however, the positive impacts that result from behaviour change are far more long-term, which underscores the urgency of taking policy and infrastructural decisions today that can influence how people behave in the decades to come. “In some situations, such as with innovation in technology at an early stage of development and some changes in behaviour towards low-emissions, because the enabling conditions may take time to be established, action in the near-term can yield accelerated mitigation in the mid-term,” the report states.

Lifestyle and behavioural change can take years to shift, or it can turn on a dime. Either way, sociocultural efforts need immediate consideration from businesses and policymakers alike.


6. Businesses are part of the problem and part of the solution

In the end, building a climate-friendly economy and society in such short a timescale is impossible without the support of the public and consumers. At present, support for climate action remains strong, but the risks from poor policymaking and misinformation are significant and are only set to grow as the net zero transition accelerates.

But as the IPCC report makes abundantly clear, businesses are either part of the problem, or part of the solution. “Actors either contribute to the status-quo of a global high-carbon, consumption, and GDP growth-oriented economy, or help generate the desired change to a low-carbon energy-services, well-being, and equity-oriented economy,” it states.

As such, there is no longer any room for fence-sitting, and companies which are serious about being part of the net zero future need to ensure their climate strategies look outwards as well as inwards, by building relationships with customers, suppliers and other firms in their industries in order to influence behavioural and lifestyle changes.

Amid huge geopolitical instability, widespread public support for climate action and green technologies is an opportunity that can be harnessed to help individuals embrace the changes that result in greener, healthier – and cheaper – lifestyles. The need to harness sociocultural efforts to drive and accelerate decarbonisation could scarcely be more urgent. Just ask the IPCC.

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