Hidden in the IPCC’s latest climate report is a solution to reducing carbon emissions that gets less attention than solar panels or electric cars: “choice architecture,” or behavioral design, that can help influence consumers to make better decisions for the climate, whether that’s biking to work or eating less meat.
It’s an important piece of the overall fight against climate change, says Mindy Hernandez, who leads the World Resources Institute’s Living Lab for Equitable Climate Action, a program that applies behavioral research to climate change. “We’ve taken a supply-driven approach to climate change for 50 years,” she says. “And as the IPCC report makes clear, that approach isn’t getting us where we need to be, and we are running out of time. Supply is just one arm—the behavioral side is the other arm we need to push past the crisis. It’s not one or other. It’s both. The behavioral lens should complement the policy changes and tech side.”
She compares it to what has happened during the COVID-19 pandemic. “Developing vaccines—the technology—was critical,” she says. “But [the] NIH [National Institutes of Health], CDC [Centers for Disease Control], and others invested a tiny fraction of that time, money, and effort in figuring out how to get people to take those vaccines. When the outgoing director of the NIH was recently asked what the NIH could have done differently in their fight against COVID, he said: ‘Maybe we underinvested in behavioral research.’ We should not make the same mistake in the climate crisis.”
The IPCC report estimates that “comprehensive demand-side strategies” across all sectors could reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 40% to 70% globally by 2050. The report suggests multiple types of interventions, from nudging consumers to eat more sustainably or buy more repairable, durable products, to redesigning infrastructure to help people shift from cars to biking or public transit.
Even simple changes influence behavior. In a classic example, a software company called Opower (later acquired by Oracle) partnered with utility companies to redesign electric bills, sharing a chart that compared their use with neighbors—and a smiley face if they were one of the most efficient homes. Energy consumption dropped, and the effect was long-lasting. WRI recently tested the same approach in India.
“The average effect of Opower-esque studies is 7%, and interesting, that was exactly what we found—the intervention decreased household energy by 7%,” she says. “Scaled to the state, it would be like taking 100,000 cars off the road, and save consumers $60 million a year.”
In another example, WRI has tested how changing the language on a menu can nudge people to choose plant-based food. A message about how plant-based food reduces emissions increased plant-based orders in the study, though Hernandez notes that it needs to be a targeted message; skeptics of climate change likely need different language than those mindful of their consumption habits. “This seems so obvious, but too often we see people as a monolith,” she says. “I am Puerto Rican, and it blows my mind every time people talk about the ‘Latino vote.’ Third-generation Cubans, Puerto Ricans in New York City, and first-generation Mexicans will have different concerns. Creating one behavioral intervention for all of these different communities will not work well.”
In past studies, Stanford University researchers have looked at how to influence people to order more plant-based meals by using language on menus that makes the food sound more indulgent. Google has tested similar efforts in its employee cafeterias, and worked on designing plant-based “power dishes” that diners are more likely to order.
Making people opt out of the more sustainable choice—for example, automatically enrolling them in a renewable energy program—is another useful tool. “People still have choice because they can opt out. But it is making the pro-social, pro-environmental choice easier. This is especially important for populations who are low on time, education, resources to seek out the renewable energy option. Defaults correct for that by doing the work and making that choice easier for everyone,” Hernandez says.
But behavioral design also goes beyond these small nudges. “It should not stop there. We don’t live in isolated bubbles of personal choice,” Hernandez notes. “Individual behavior is influenced by our environments, so we need to apply behavioral science at both a micro level that responds to individual choices and behaviors as well as a systems level.” For example, a city might put up signs telling people where to find a shared bike to rent, a simple nudge, “but if people don’t feel safe on the street, or have access to affordable bikes, it’s not enough,” she says. “It’s moving pillows.”
Urban design that uses protected bike lanes on streets so people feel comfortable riding is another form of behavioral design.
Within the world of climate activism, some people argue that it’s a distraction to think about individual behavior. The fossil fuel lobby worked for years to make climate change seem like a consumer problem rather than a fossil industry problem, even inventing the concept of the “carbon footprint.” Policy changes obviously also have to happen. But that doesn’t mean that individual change is irrelevant. Collectively, whether people choose to replace gas cars with electric cars (or bikes) or gas stoves with induction stoves does matter.
Some behaviors are most important to target because of their outsize impact. “KR Foundation uses a term I like: hot spot behaviors,” Hernandez says. “These are the behaviors we know cause the greatest climate impact—meat and dairy consumption, fossil-fuel-based energy, car use and air travel. It varies a bit by region. India does not need to focus on meat eating, for example. And by demographics: Low-income folks are not contributing to the air travel emissions. However, for most climate-conscious middle- and/or upper-income professionals, their greatest contribution to emissions is their flying habit.”
The Living Lab is studying ways to nudge consumers to use smart charging for EVs, help people switch from cars to walking or biking in cities, and create social norms to decrease business travel. This summer, the researchers will publish a paper outlining ways to change those so-called hot spot behaviors.
Several factors are important for behavioral design to succeed, beginning with investing enough time and money for testing, tweaking, and retesting new iterations. Anyone working on interventions should also build coalitions; if a government wants to reduce car use, it needs to work with bike share and scooter companies and other researchers studying how to help new products gain acceptance and use. But interventions should also be ambitious. “We can think bigger than posters or green recycling bins,” Hernandez says. “The fate of the planet literally hangs in the balance.”