Cities have the potential to be at the forefront of efforts to become climate-neutral, according to the European Commission’s recently launched Cities mission. For environmental psychologist Lorraine Whitmarsh nothing holds more truth. “The local level is probably the scale at which we can most effectively engage people in change. People are more likely to feel ownership of their local area, have relevant expertise and know what is needed.” Her ERC-funded project MOCHA explores how behavioural change happens to seize the moment for an environmental turnaround. Change is an inevitable part of life - what if, with the right understanding of life transitions and environmental impact, becoming greener were too?
Your ERC-funded project MOCHA explores the link between moments of change and environmental impact. Even if the project is still at an early stage, what are some of its main findings?
MOCHA looks at how we can get people to change their behaviour to be more environmentally friendly, in particular focusing on ‘moments of change’ when people experience disruption or transition in their lives - like moving house, having a baby, changing job, etc. We believe changes are more effective during these periods because people’s normal habits are usually weakened and amenable to change.
For instance, we have studied consumption habits before and after people move house. By looking at millions of sales from major supermarkets and shops, we are starting to see that people consume much less in the lead up to a house move and then increase their consumption following it. The next step is to see whether people are more likely to buy greener products and think about the future following the move or after having a baby - a time when identities, priorities and routines shift significantly. It looks like immediately after a baby, most people are more likely to consume much more and environmental ethics take a back seat. The question we are interested in is whether, after this period of disruption (and sleep deprivation!), environmental values kick-in.
The project considers a wide range of circumstances, including the current COVID-19 pandemic. What has been the impact?
The team has noticed quite a few big changes. People are consuming less and in different ways. There are clear signs that people are choosing to eat less meat and buy greener produce. One of the biggest changes the team has seen is that more people are cooking and preparing their own food and becoming conscious about food waste – one of the biggest contributors to climate change.
Climate change has become a core concern entrenched in people’s worries. The team carried out surveys to see whether people would like to continue to do any of the things they were forced to do during lockdown. While many said they were keen to travel a bit more for leisure, the majority said they would like to continue to work from home, prepare their own food and spend time with family – all of which tend to have a lower carbon footprint than going into the office. This provides an opportunity to ‘lock in’ positive intentions.
How do you ‘lock in’ good behaviour?
By encouraging staff to work from home, employers are ‘locking in’ virtual communication, which brings benefits to the environment from reduced business travel, heating and light in offices. Some local authorities have already started to take action by putting new measures in place to encourage people to walk and cycle – helping improve air quality and tackle climate change.
The team is also interested in tracking the impact of home working, which has led to migration out of cities. There are so many social, environmental and economic knock-on effects from this. One of the opportunities could be that if people are spending more time in their neighbourhood they are more inclined to buy lunch at a local café rather than get food on the go with plastic packaging.
The European Commission’s Mission on Climate-Neutral and Smart Cities (cities mission) emphasises that cities have the potential to be at the forefront of efforts to become climate-neutral. Do you agree?
I think it’s really exciting that this initiative is coming out because the local level is probably the scale at which we can most effectively engage people in change. At this level, people are more likely to feel ownership of their local area, have relevant expertise and know what is needed. For both concerned groups and citizens to be included in the design of this initiative is key. I think it will also mean more buy-in at the local level. Cities doing the most are those that see that by cutting emissions they are improving air quality and creating green jobs that the community wants - there are many win-wins.
The cities mission’s objectives are ambitious with time bound and measurable deliverables. Do you think its aiming too high?
I actually don’t find the objective to deliver 100 climate-neutral and smart European cities by 2030 overly ambitious. Many local authorities in the UK have already committed to becoming totally carbon neutral by this date, like Bristol, Cardiff and Cornwall. I like that they are going to find 100 cities and then from that work with the remainder. Exemplars are really helpful as they show other local authorities that it can be done. These ‘experimentation hubs’ will certainly help other European cities to be in a position to become climate-neutral by 2050.
How does your research contribute to the cities mission?
We are working with a few local authorities and employers to test out interventions to encourage people to walk and cycle more after they have moved house. New schools are also an opportunity to shape young people’s behaviour, like travel habits, from early on in their lives. This links in with wider work the team is doing to develop a behaviour change and engagement toolkit to help the city of Cardiff reach its 2030 carbon neutral target. Cardiff has some technological projects but acknowledge there is a ‘behaviour change gap’ within the council and city so we are working with them to help ‘lock in’ some of the good behaviour coming out of the pandemic.
Could you provide some advice for cities working on their climate action plans?
Huge opportunities to change people’s behaviour are not always considered when cities are thinking about the technological infrastructure side. I would advise cities to use the evidence on how to change behaviour that our research contributes to. Engaging with citizens is also crucial to avoid backlash to measures such as removing parking, and to calm justifiable fears like reduced mobility for disabled people. Cities should work closely with their residents and get their insights when developing interventions.
Responding to climate change requires profound changes. It really is up to everybody. The more that we see others changing, the more there will be behavioural change. I’m optimistic about this. It is starting to happen with saying no to plastic and the more we can get people to think like this with diet and travel too, it will take off! There are many interesting opportunities to encourage pro-environmental behaviour, if local authorities choose to do so.
Lorraine Whitmarsh is Professor of Environmental Psychology at the University of Bath. She also serves as Director of the Centre for Climate Change and Social Transformations (CAST), which is an interuniversity institution that considers how society must adapt to reduce emissions. In particular, Whitmarsh has focused on perceptions and behaviours in relation to climate change, energy and transport. In 2014, she was awarded an ERC Starting Grant to investigate low-carbon lifestyles (CASPI). Since 2019, she holds an ERC Consolidator Grant (MOCHA) where she studies the moments that cause pro-environmental behaviour shifts. Whitmarsh regularly advises governmental and other organisations on low-carbon behaviour change and climate change communication.