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System change vs behaviour change is a false choice – Covid-19 shows how they’re connected

By Adam Corner on May 27, 2020

Countries across the world have implemented ‘lockdown’ policies in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. Entire sectors of the economy have temporarily ceased to function, global air travel has ground to a sudden halt, and many millions of people have retreated into their homes.

Dulas Ltd staff member cycling to the office. Dulas have a large PV solar panel as the roof of their bike shed that generates electricity for the building. Machynlleth, Powys, Wales.

One unplanned consequence of this has been a sudden and sharp drop in global carbon emissions, as new analyses published in the journal Nature Climate Change confirm and quantify.

Despite misjudged (and often simply mistaken) commentary suggesting that ‘nature is healing’ as human activities recede, there is nothing for environmentalists to celebrate. The cost of the pandemic – whether measured in lives or livelihoods – is not a price worth paying for a temporary glitch in the global emissions trajectory.

But the news that carbon emissions had plummeted by 17% (a reduction unprecedented since records began) was accompanied by commentary suggesting that a reduction of ‘only’ 17% meant changes in behaviours and social practices were not important for curbing climate change. If 83% of emissions remained intact, despite huge swathes of our lives being scaled back or cancelled altogether, what hope is there for more moderate changes in lifestyles to make a difference?

It’s the latest in a long line of examples where ‘behaviour change’ and ‘system change’ are pitted against each other. But the way this question is framed – as a trade off between two choices – is a misrepresentation of the challenge that climate change poses, and the way societies are responding to it.

Decarbonising the energy supply

It goes without saying (even increasingly for fossil fuel companies) that changes in ‘demand side’ behaviours – even on a radical scale – will make only a limited dent in global emissions unless the energy supply system is decarbonised, and unless many of the ways our economies operate – particularly in rich countries – are reconfigured.

Moving as fast and as fairly as we can away from fossil fuels and towards low carbon energy sources and sustainable societies is essential, and rightly a focus of scientists and campaigners around the world. The scale of this challenge is underscored by the fact that even with many parts of the global economy on pause (i.e. not just ‘consumption’ activities), emissions cuts have been limited.

Given that we’ve barely got moving with these critical changes to the global energy system, and that fossil fuels remain dominant in many countries around the world, it isn’t surprising that knocking out some aspects of energy consumption (air travel, the leisure industry, domestic transport) only has a limited impact on global carbon emissions.

The energy-consuming activities that remain – including global agriculture and increased home energy use – are still largely powered by high carbon fuels. We are still able to consume products and services – the source of a large proportion of emissions – even from home.

Two sides of the same coin

The rapid, radical shifts we have witnessed during lockdowns show how deeply interconnected ‘system change’ and ‘behaviour change’ are. The risks to wider society from Covid-19 have in large part been limited precisely because of the actions of many individual households committing to ‘stay home’ and socially distance.

In the case of climate change, broad-based public consent and a social mandate is likewise essential for significant policy and structural shifts to occur around travel, home energy use and diet.

What the lockdown period shows very clearly is that without public support, shifts in moral and social norms, and a commitment to individual behaviour changes in service of addressing a collective risk, the structural and policy shifts would simply not be achievable. A sense of ‘collective efficacy’ from millions of individual decisions added together is a critical learning point from the Covid-19 experience (as the new Climate Outreach guide on effective climate communication during the pandemic emphasises).

The lesson for climate change is clear: system change and behaviour change are two sides of the same coin. We need to focus on both – and also to recognise the constant interplay between them – in order to achieve global climate targets.

People are more than just energy ‘consumers’

More moderate, but much more permanent policy shifts to cut carbon (for example through eating more plant-based diets) will need public support or they will not be implemented. Technological shifts – for example away from gas boilers and towards heat pumps to power homes – will only be possible if the public are persuaded they are necessary, and that the transition away from more familiar technologies is fair and just.

It is also critical to acknowledge that ordinary people have many different roles, and are not simply consumers of energy or passive users of technologies. As Covid-19 has demonstrated, the power of social and moral norms has been phenomenal in shifting and locking in changes in behaviours. But as decision makers at work, voters, citizens protesting or writing to their MPs, individuals have many routes to make their voices heard, and when this happens en masse it can create rapid change.

It’s true of course that without decarbonising the energy supply, any tweaking on the demand side will only have a limited impact on our collective carbon footprint. But likewise, there is no plausible decarbonisation pathway which can cope with ever-growing levels of personal aviation and private transport, and unrestrained material consumption.

Decarbonisation on the supply-side coupled with significant shifts in the lifestyles of a (considerable) global minority are absolutely essential to achieve global emissions targets. This includes not only the extremes, who do account for a huge portion of global emissions (for instance, the richest 1% of the global population uses 175 times more carbon than someone from the bottom 10%), but also a large majority of those who live in rich, high-emitting countries.

Closing the emissions gap

Climate Outreach and the CAST centre are leading a team of authors working on a chapter for the next United Nations Emissions Gap report exploring precisely this issue. The chapter will identify lifestyle changes and social practices that are most impactful for reducing global emissions – particularly in wealthy countries – and make the case for how social practices and lifestyle changes can become systemic changes.

For this to work, we need to focus on both behaviour change and system change. It is essential that we find ways to transcend the false and unhelpful dichotomy that it’s “either or”, and instead have a more sophisticated debate about how the two are dynamically – and unavoidably – linked.

This blogpost was written by Adam Corner with input from Stuart Capstick (Centre for Climate Change and Social Transformations, CAST) and Susie Wang (Climate Outreach).

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One response to System change vs behaviour change is a false choice – Covid-19 shows how they’re connected

  1. Hi Adam,
    I’m getting in touch as I’m interested in the work you’re doing on how lifestyle changes can impact emissions and also affect system change when made collectively. I have just written a book which promotes a movement I’ve founded based on these principals. The aim for the movement is to provide a vehicle for people to come together so that personal action no longer feels insignificant. It also allows people to take a pledge to reduce their carbon footprint down to 3 tonnes per year. I then provide suggestions on how to do this without having to make radical lifestyle choices. I put the solutions in order of priority depending on potential emissions savings. To work this out I used the footprint calculator at which is the one I used to bring my own footprint down to 3 tonnes from around the UK average.
    It seems that a lot of the principals I’ve based the movement on mirror what you’re saying and I’m wondering if the movement could in some way be used to complement your work. I am very much open to adapting and improving the movement so that it can be used by bigger organisations as a means to make personal action mainstream and encourage people to get involved.
    If that sounds interesting I’d love to hear from you, and feel free to take look at the website –
    Many thanks,

By Dr Adam Corner

Adam Corner is a writer and independent researcher who specialises in climate change communication and climate/culture collaborations. Adam worked with Climate Outreach between 2010-2021, helping to build the research team, developing Climate Visuals and Britain Talks Climate, and establishing the centre for Climate Change and Social Transformations (CAST). Adam has published widely on public engagement with climate change, from academic journals and reports for NGOs to media commentary (including for the Guardian and New Scientist). Currently Adam’s work is split between strategic climate communication projects (like the Local Storytelling Exchange), writing and contributing to reports, and developing the climate communication evidence base into music and cultural spaces.

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