Individual behaviour and system change – why it’s not one or the other
By Jill Kubit
There is a long-standing debate within the climate movement over the roles of individual behaviour change and systemic change in curbing carbon emissions. For many, any push for individual lifestyle changes is seen as distracting at best, and even harmful—conflicting with the need to emphasise broader social and political reforms.
But new social science research suggests otherwise. Movements that encourage and support individual change do not come at the expense of the push for social and political change. Rather than being pitted against each other in a zero-sum, either/or conflict, these two levels of change are not only both necessary but directly connected, influencing and reinforcing one another.
Moving past this debate is of great importance to me. As a climate communications expert and founder of a storytelling project where people organise and make climate commitments, I’ve been asked over and over by friends and colleagues, activists and students: “Do my actions matter?” While it’s clear one person’s reduced consumption will not move the needle alone, there is a growing body of evidence that individual behaviour change is needed to spur and underpin cooperative and collective social and political action (something which is well articulated by scholars like Leor Hackel and Gregg Sparkman, for example in this article for Slate). To deepen my knowledge and get up to speed on the latest scholarship, I spent several months combing through scientific journals, interviewing practitioners in sustainable behaviour and social science researchers, and cataloguing my findings.
These were three key takeaways:
- Behaviour change is necessary if we want to limit warming to 1.5 degrees. The 2018 IPCC report calls for “wide-scale behaviour changes” in order to adapt to meet the 1.5 degree warming targets. A more recent 2020 report by McKinsey states: “Getting to 1.5 degrees would require significant economic incentives for companies to invest rapidly and at scale in decarbonisation efforts. It also would require individuals to make changes in areas as fundamental as the food they eat and their modes of transport.” Despite the conclusions of these reports, many 1.5-degree mitigation scenarios fail to include behaviour change, instead relying heavily on as-yet unproven carbon dioxide removal (CDR) technologies, also often referred to as negative emissions technologies or ‘NETs’. But integrating lifestyle change into mitigation scenarios may reduce the need to hold out for technology that may not be as effective or scalable as many hope. A 2018 study in Nature Climate Change found that by combining lifestyle change, reduction of other greenhouse gases, and rapid electrification through renewable energy, it was possible to reduce, but not eliminate, the use of CDR. Researchers in Austria developed a mitigation scenario based on lifestyle changes, accelerated adoption of renewable energy agricultural intensification, and lab grown meat, which demonstrated that it possible to reach the 1.5 degree target without relying on negative emissions technologies. Calling attention to lifestyle change does not downplay the fact that 71 percent of greenhouse gas emissions are produced by 100 companies—it acknowledges that 72 percent of global emissions are ultimately consumed at the household level. Reducing energy demand requires both infrastructure changes and individual level behaviour changes. A report by Rare.org analysing the 80 top mitigation strategies outlined in Project Drawdown found that 30 of the strategies were dependent upon individual behaviour changes in the areas of food and agriculture, transportation, energy, and materials. When taken together, these 30 actions could mitigate between 19.9 to 36.8 percent of global emissions between 2020 and 2050.
- Individual actions influence others and help create the conditions for social and political change. To understand how this works, we must discuss the role of social norms. Social norms are the unwritten rules that determine how people act in groups. It is well established in the social science literature that people are heavily influenced by social norms—by how others act and think they should act. This is echoed in research on sustainable behaviours and climate actions. In a study analysing OPower’s data from randomised control trials in 27 US states, researchers found that one’s beliefs about what people’s neighbours thought was a stronger prediction for energy conservation than one’s own beliefs. A solar panel installation programme was analysed by Kraft-Todd et al and it was found that community organisers who had installed solar panels on their own homes through the program had recruited 62.8% more residents than those who did not. Doherty and Webler found people were more likely to participate in public sector actions if they knew others who were engaging politically. This social norm was the greatest predictor of political participation. In the domains where carbon reductions are needed – food, transportation, energy, consumption – sustainable behaviours are currently against the norm. Thus, to encourage the adoption of sustainable behaviours at the level of whole societies, we need to shift norms through visible, clearly articulated individual actions. Additionally, research about dynamic norms (norms that are shifting) indicates that by articulating a changing or trending norm, we can help speed up the rate of change.
- Policy transformation requires individual and group level participation. Transformation to a zero-carbon society will profoundly alter how people work, eat, travel, and live. Making these changes requires an active and engaged public that is willing to not only advocate for but also take up these changes. This idea is clearly articulated by Climate Outreach’s report Public Engagement for a 1.5 °C World, which concludes that: “The 1.5 °C target also requires lifestyle changes on a range of totemic issues like diet, personal travel and home heating in a relatively short period of time. Without public buy-in, these could prompt significant resistance. Given the short timescale, the infrastructure of public engagement needs to be put in place just as the infrastructure of policy change does.”
Individual actions matter. Only through individual behaviour change can we meet ambitious global emissions reductions targets, foster the conditions for broader social and political change, and guarantee a successful, broad-scale transition to a zero-carbon society and economy.
You can explore the complete results of the project in the framing document, annotated bibliography and set of recommendations below.