How do people save the planet?

Dr Wokje Abrahamse, Senior Lecturer, School of Geography, focuses on understanding people’s motivations to adopt sustainable behaviours.

Scientists are more certain than ever that climate change is happening and that people’s actions are contributing to it. Profound lifestyle changes are needed to avoid the impacts of climate change. Enabling people to adopt sustainable behaviours can form an integral part of the solution to the climate change challenge.

Encouraging people to change their behaviour can be notoriously difficult. Even when people have high levels of environmental concern and a strong willingness to do something for the environment, this does not always translate into action. When it comes to making daily choices, environmental concern is often at odds with concerns such as cost, convenience, or social pressure—to name but a few.

My research focuses on understanding people’s motivations to adopt sustainable behaviours and on the effectiveness of initiatives and policies to encourage behaviour change. In other words,
I look at what works and what does not work so well, and why this might be the case.

One commonly held assumption seems to be that people are motivated only by money. Obviously, cost and financial considerations are important to people when they make daily choices, but it is by no means the only motivator. In my research, and that of my students, we have found that people with strong environmental values are more likely to do a range of pro-environmental behaviour, such as conserving energy at home and reducing their meat consumption. It is important that behaviour-change campaigns are aligned with people’s motivations.

So, what is the most effective way to change people’s behaviour? I get asked this question a lot. And I usually respond by saying, “It all depends.” When doing research for my recent book Encouraging Pro-environmental Behaviour: What Works, What Doesn’t, and Why, I found that different kinds of sustainable behaviours are associated with different motivators. In the energy domain, an approach that seems to work quite well is the use of social norms. When people are told that their neighbours are conserving energy, they are then more likely to conserve energy also. This is the power of peer pressure. But in the transport domain, people’s travel habits and their environmental concern play an important role.

Habits refer to our daily routines: we do not think about these behaviours too much, we just do them. Interventions to encourage sustainable transport choices are more effective when people have weak car-use habits and when they have high levels of environmental concern. Research in the area of sustainable food consumption is starting to look into ‘nudging’—by making foods with a low environmental impact the default (e.g. by placing them at the check-out counter), people could be ‘nudged’ into making sustainable choices.

We need urgent action to address current environmental problems. Research findings on what motivates people to adopt pro-environmental behaviours could, and should, be used to inform policymaking. Ultimately, policies that are informed by research from the social and behavioural sciences can benefit people and society in a shift towards a more environmentally sustainable future.