The role of policy in reducing household carbon emissions

As we have seen from the recent wave of climate protests, even one individual – a 16-year old Swedish girl called Greta Thunberg – can make a huge difference when it comes to tackling climate change. If every household contributed to emissions reductions by making certain lifestyle changes, we could reach the temperature reduction targets enshrined in the Paris Agreement. So why is behaviour change not receiving more attention from policy makers?

policy brief
The role of policy in reducing household carbon emissions (PDF 539 KB)

Research by Professor Benjamin Sovacool and colleagues from across Europe has looked at the contributions households could make to emissions reduction and argues that there is potential for individuals to be at the heart of mitigation policies.

Their new policy brief, based on a four-year project called HOPE (HOusehold Preference for reducing greenhouse gas emissions in four European high-income countries), shows that effective climate change mitigation policies are needed to mobilise individual behaviour change.

The research shows that existing policies focus too much on the supply side, with technical changes in energy production and supply infrastructure being prioritised. The contribution of households is currently not well understood and is usually seen as an afterthought. The project analysed 250 distinct climate policy measures that could influence household emissions and found that these policies tend to be market-based approaches that individualise responsibility for issues that are difficult to address without coordinated collective action.

The policy brief recommends that policy makers:

  • Take a balanced approach when it comes to energy consumption and production
  • Focus more on emissions from road vehicles, aviation and meat consumption
  • Create a strong policy framework to support voluntary emission reduction efforts
  • Target intermediaries (such as car dealers) to help them influence households at key stages of their lifecycle

The HOPE project investigated the preferences of households across four cities in France, Sweden, Germany and Norway. It involved a survey using a specially-designed simulation tool to indicate carbon and money savings from 65 lifestyle choices combined with in-depth surveys with household members.

The study found public support for policy initiatives that encouraged more sustainable practices around food production, but resistance to initiatives that restricted personal mobility and transport options. The study also found that ironically the areas where greatest lifestyle changes were required and the largest carbon footprints produced, such as aviation and changes to diet, had received the lowest policy attention to date.

Read the policy brief to find out more.

Read the original study.

Dr. Benjamin K. Sovacool is Professor of Energy Policy at the Science Policy Research Unit (SPRU) at the University of Sussex Business School in the United Kingdom. There he serves as Director of the Sussex Energy Group.

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