Persuading people to live more sustainably is not going to be easy

As the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change showed, the vast majority of experts agree that the threat posed by climate change to the planet and to humanity is real, that extreme weather events will become more frequent and more devastating, and that urgent action is required to avoid the worst-case scenarios. Not surprisingly, there is much less agreement about the action itself: What action(s)? By whom? When? How much? How fast? At what cost? A key question for politicians, decision-makers and campaigners – and for ordinary individuals and local communities – is what ‘living sustainably’ will mean in practice and the impact it will have on our lives.

As the Covid pandemic has shown, government is able to pull various levers in its attempt to effect changes in people’s behaviour. It can try to compel us to do certain things by changing the law: for several months it was illegal to leave your home in the UK except for certain very specific reasons.

It can encourage us to behave in a certain way, for example during the pandemic with talk of vaccine passports: life will be a lot easier for you if you get vaccinated. It can also discourage us from behaving in particular ways, for example by using the tax system to make certain choices financially burdensome.

Government can also attempt to persuade us, perhaps appealing to our compassion, our moral sensibilities or our sense of civic duty. In September 2020 the then health secretary urged young people not to kill granny through coronavirus.

People will of course disagree about how effective each of these levers is likely to be and indeed – in liberal democracies at least – how legitimate they are.

The introduction of compulsory seat belts in 1983 and the ban on smoking in pubs and many other indoor places in 2007 are two changes in the law that were widely accepted and had a speedy, dramatic and positive impact on overall health outcomes. In both cases the underlying rationale was explained in advance and enjoyed broad public support. Also, it is worth noting, the measures did not have a massive financial impact on individuals and families or lead to huge inconvenience for most people.

The fuel tax escalator in the 1990s – introduced by John Major’s government to encourage less motor vehicle use and thus combat climate change – was ultimately much less successful. It was an attempt to change our behaviour through the tax system, the idea being to annually increase fuel duty above the rate of inflation, thus making fuel prices more expensive in real terms every year. The escalator was continued (and the rate increased) by the Labour government after 1997, resulting in the fuel tax protests of 2000 which quickly brought much of the country to a standstill. Since then it has been one of the hottest of political hot potatoes: in the 2021 budget the chancellor froze fuel duty for the eleventh consecutive year.

It is just one example, of course, and no doubt a too-simplistic explanation of why the fuel tax protests occurred. But it suggests a rule of thumb when considering the sorts of lifestyle changes that a move to sustainable living would entail: that changes, however well-intentioned, that cost individuals and families a lot of money and/or lead to significant inconvenience and disruption to their lives are going to be opposed and resisted by many and are almost certain to be politically extremely difficult to implement.

It is, in short, a massive political headache for those in power – how to get people to change their behaviour. Consider, for example, the intense political wrangling over the Greater Manchester Clean Air Zone, due to be introduced in May but now delayed.

Lord Adair Turner, a former head of the CBI and a former chair of the UK’s Climate Change Committee, recently encouraged drivers to limit their speed to 55mph on motorways. The International Energy Agency has encouraged people to turn down their thermostats by one degree to cut gas consumption. But how effective are recommendations and requests such as these likely to be? According to the Financial Times, Lord Patrick McLoughlin, a former Tory transport secretary, said it would not be easy for ministers to compel people to drive at slower speeds. “Good luck with that,” he said.


Image at the head of this article by Alexander Grishin from Pixabay 

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