The greatest signs of hope for tackling climate change exist at the local, not global, level

Posted in: Climate change, COP28, Culture and policy, Energy and environmental policy, Evidence and policymaking, Science and research policy, Sustainability, UK politics

Lorraine Whitmarsh is Professor of Environmental Psychology in the Department of Psychology at the University of Bath, and Director of the Centre for Climate Change and Social Transformations (CAST).

As world leaders gather in Dubai for COP28 to discuss climate change, many within the climate community have low expectations for what will be delivered. The UN’s Global Stocktake has confirmed that governments’ progress towards the Paris Agreement goals of limiting global warming to 1.5°C has fallen far short. The latest UN Emissions Gap report shows that while some progress has been made in slowing the rise in carbon emissions, the world is on track for a temperature rise of at least 2.9°C (and that’s only if governments implement their climate pledges). With a record number of fossil fuel lobbyists expected at COP it seems unlikely that the climate talks will do much to close the emissions gap.

COP28 sees the launch of the latest ActNowFilm, produced by IPR and Cambridge Zero, in which young climate activists and climate scientists discuss their experiences and hopes for the climate talks. A clear message comes through from this COP is broken. While it may be a crucial mechanism for global consensus building, there are too many vested interests while critical constituents remain excluded. In particular, young people who CAST research shows feel more fear, guilt and outrage over the impacts of climate change, have little say and yet are amongst those most affected.

There is a stark mismatch between the inertia in international negotiations and the experiences of people around the world – most of whom (57%) say they are experiencing severe impacts from climate change already, and many (38%) expect to be displaced from their homes in the next 25 years as a result of climate change. Most also feel governments, businesses and citizens are not taking enough action to tackle the climate crisis, and feel under-informed about what individuals can do. This suggests that the UN’s ACE – Action for Climate Empowermentthe part of the Paris Agreement intended to inform and engage the public on climate action, is not being effectively implemented.

Yet there is much that individuals can do (and indeed need to do) – both to cut emissions directly through lifestyle change, but also indirectly to help shape wider systems. In a recent paper, we identify six domains of choice for climate action (see Figure). Four of these relate to our individual carbon footprints – food, energy, transport, and shopping. If we are to stay within 1.5°C warming limit, this means reducing our carbon footprint from 8.5tCO2 to 2.5t CO2 by 2030, through things like flying less, eating more plant-based foods, adopting electric vehicles and heat pumps, and wasting less.

But two other domains of action – influence and citizenship – are also important. This includes influencing friends, family, neighbours, colleagues and employers through conversations, making leadership or career decisions, joining community action groups, and modelling low-carbon behaviour. Citizenship includes political actions, like voting and protesting, but also investing money in sustainable funds. In fact, analysis suggests it may be 21 times more effective to move your savings to sustainable funds than eating less meat, using public transport, reducing water use, and flying less combined.

Six domains of climate action (from Hampton & Whitmarsh, 2023)

But there are barriers to taking action across all six of these domains. These range from knowledge gaps about what is most effective, to high-consumption social norms, to financial and physical constraints, to limited opportunities to influence political or organisational decisions. CAST’s recent report for the UK Climate Change Committee, on the implications of behavioural science for effective climate policy concludes that removing these barriers involves clearer communication of climate policies and more public involvement in policy design, as well as policies that make low-carbon behaviours easier, cheaper, and more attractive.

While information alone has limited effects on behaviour change, our latest behaviour change study provided people with information on water saving, asked them to commit to reducing water use, and gave feedback on their progress; this led to a reduction in shower time of 38%. Other work shows congestion charging has reduced car use by 33% in London, while doubling the proportion of vegetarian options in canteens increased plant-based sales by up to 80%. Combining interventions is even more effective; for example combining environmental messaging, economic incentives (a surcharge on disposable cups), and infrastructure (free keep-cups) reduced disposable coffee cup use by 38%. Messaging by itself only changed behaviour by 1%.

Engagement is key, though. Interventions imposed on people can lead to backlash, whereas participatory approaches can improve acceptability and effectiveness. The scale and scope of behaviour change requires developing net zero strategies with people to ensure their needs and concerns are incorporated into intervention design. This engagement is starting to happen at devolved and local levels, but the UK still lacks a public engagement strategy for climate change.

Indeed, the local level is really where the most innovation and ambition on climate action can be found. From community food and grassroots sports initiatives, to wide-ranging city initiatives, civil society organisations and local authorities are working hard to deliver change on the ground in ways that are tailored to the needs and capacities of local communities and that can deliver wider economic, social and environmental benefits. The evident power of the local has led to calls for greater devolution of power and resources to support more place-based initiatives.

Importantly, local initiatives are often more people-centred than national or international action, which are dominated by large-scale technological approaches. This is a problem for several reasons. First, it is not realistic. Carbon capture and storage (CCS) and hydrogen (which are central planks of UK climate policy), according to CREDS, providehigh risk and uncertain rewards, whereas ready-made energy demand reduction options cut energy demand in the short-term and are “disproportionately effective. The governments’ own climate advisors, CCC, similarly criticised the Prime Minister’s recent roll-back on (demand-side) climate policies: “Ruling out demand-side measures in a wide range of areas such as transport choices and diet reduces the available options to reduce emissions, increasing overall delivery risks. It also removes some important flexibility in the way that future targets can be met.”

Second, it is not desirable. Demand-side approaches deliver wide-ranging wellbeing benefits, particularly to health. There is overwhelming evidence that climate action improves health due to reduced air pollution, eating more fruit and vegetables, and walking or cycling instead of driving. But delivering these benefits requires ambitious climate action from governments, to support and enable people to change their behaviour. Demand-side solutions also enable people to play an active role in addressing climate change – and taking action, particularly with other people, can help people manage their climate anxiety.

Taken together, this shows the gulf between the COP talks and ordinary people when it comes to climate change. But while it may be disheartening to see so little progress and such technocentrism at the international level, there is more hope in the local young people, communities and cities are experimenting to find people-based climate solutions that also improve people’s lives. The annual UN climate talks at least raise climate change up media agendas, and so provide an opportunity to celebrate and share insights from these grassroots initiatives.

All articles posted on this blog give the views of the author(s), and not the position of the IPR, nor of the University of Bath.

Read more of our blogs on COP28.

Posted in: Climate change, COP28, Culture and policy, Energy and environmental policy, Evidence and policymaking, Science and research policy, Sustainability, UK politics


  • (we won't publish this)

Write a response