Scaling behaviour change for a 1.5-degree world: challenges and opportunities

Posted on 11 November 2021

By Peter Newell, Michelle Twena and Freddie Daley

Sustainable behaviour change has been rising up the climate policy agenda as it becomes increasingly clear that far-reaching changes in lifestyles will be required,
alongside shifts in policy, service provision and technological innovation, if we are to avoid dangerous levels of global heating.

In this paper, we review different approaches to behaviour change from economics, psychology, sociology and political economy, to explore the neglected question of scalability, and identify critical points of leverage that challenge the dominant emphasis on individual responsibility. Although politically contentious and challenging to implement, in order to achieve the ambitious target of keeping warming below 1.5 degrees, we propose urgent structural interventions are necessary at all points within an ecosystem of transformation, and highlight five key spheres for action: a ‘strong’ sustainability pathway; pursuing just transitions (via changes to work, income and infrastructure); rebalancing political institutions to expand spaces for citizens vis-à-vis elite incumbents; focusing on high polluting actors and activities; and supporting social mobilisation.

We call for a move away from linear and ‘shallow’ understandings of behaviour change, dominated by traditional behavioural and mainstreaming approaches, towards a ‘deep’, contextualised and dynamic view of scaling as a transformative process of multiple feedbacks and learning loops between individuals and systems, engaged in a mutually reinforcing ‘spiral of sustainability’ .