Driving behavioural change

Stephen Sykes | 10 years ago

In the face of climate change and mankind’s unsustainable use of finite resources (potable water, nutritional food, fossil fuels, rare earth elements and so forth), the toughest of all challenges is upon us: just what do we have to do to bring about behavioural change?
If we can’t change behaviours – and there are precious few signs that people are embracing a more sustainable way of life – then resource depletion and waste will continue unabated, and unsustainable, largely self-absorbed lifestyles will continue apace.  Somehow – soon – we need to understand how to shake out of the prevailing inertia. If we’re unable to do this, the outlook will be grim and costly (without action, the overall costs of climate change will be equivalent to losing at least 5% of global GDP per year, with poor countries being impacted the most with GDP losses of more than 10% per year: Stern Review into the Economics of Climate Change).
Behavioural change does not happen by itself. Forever creatures of habit, mankind perpetuates patterns of behaviour.

Behavioural change needs to be driven.  With sufficient political and personal courage to implement change, it can be facilitated by a variety of means:
• Wallets & Prices – there are plenty of examples to show that price signals work very effectively to change behaviour. Unconstrained market forces can make the difference – e.g. if commodities become rare, price shoots up and demand may move to lower priced alternative products. Government intervention also works through means such as tax allowances, rebates, grants and other fiscal incentives – e.g. the climate change levy, zero stamp duty for zero carbon homes, landfill tax, and the renewable obligation.
• Hearts & Minds – a prerequisite for behavioural change is that people understand the environmental consequences of their actions.  There is a great deal of misunderstanding and ignorance about how our daily choices create environmental consequences, such as carbon, waste, and other emissions. Government seems seriously disinclined to intervene with public information campaigns, somehow assuming that everyone knows the severity of the environmental issues we face and know intuitively what steps to deal with them. This is a naïve if not dangerous assumption. Youth action on the environment, lead by smart groups such as Think 2050, and environmental educationalists are showing us the way to go, but much more needs to be done by the Government to raise and maintain public awareness.
• Law & Enforcement – regulation influences how we act. Liability is a powerful factor driving changed behaviour, and the corresponding need to protect individual and corporate reputation can bring about really positive improvements. Fines for bad behaviour are a powerful deterrent, assuming that they are set at truly punitive levels (often they are not).

How then is the UK faring in using tools such as these to bring about behavioural change for the benefit of the environment? By looking at behaviour and Government policy in just one area of sustainability – the buildings which we live and work in, whether old or new – we can find an answer.
First, a few words – and, more importantly, numbers! – to explain the importance of making our buildings more energy efficient and more sustainable:
• 44% of the UK’s carbon emissions relate to buildings, so making our buildings sustainable could not be more important. Carbon is embodied in the building itself – it goes into making the concrete, glass, metal and other components. Carbon is also used operationally to heat and power buildings. Likewise, carbon is used when buildings are demolished (and, hopefully, recycled into new buildings).
• The Climate Change Act of 2008 set an overall target for the UK to cut carbon emissions by 80% by 2050. If we are to have any chance of meeting this target, significant efforts need to be directed at existing buildings. We have a stock of 25 million residential properties; and only 100,000 new homes are being built per year. In his 2009 JCT Povey Lecture, “Leading on Sustainability,” Francis Salway, Chief Executive of the Land Securities Group, said: “in any one year no more than 2% of the national stock of buildings is likely to be renewed – leaving 98% of existing, mainly energy-inefficient buildings”.

So, is the Government using price signalling to effectively bring about a change of behaviour?

The answer is ‘no, not really’. The Government’s approach is more laissez faire than interventionist.

Francis Salway has argued compellingly for a far more ambitious approach to using price to drive changes in behaviour – calling for a substantial and interlinked system of “fiscal carrots and sticks” to encourage investment in sustainable buildings and retrofitting old buildings.

Salway wants to see a higher level of ‘enhanced capital allowances’ for investment in energy saving plant and building adaptations, as well as using the property rates system to “reward those who occupy energy-efficient buildings and to penalise those who occupy energy-inefficient buildings”. A low rate in the pound would be awarded for the energy efficient buildings and a high rate in the pound for the inefficient buildings.

These are bold but practical ideas. They are not on the Government’s radar at present.

Is the Government broadcasting information about sustainable buildings and a sustainable way to use buildings to win hearts and minds, and facilitate a change of behaviour?
Earlier this year, in the Castle Debate[i] on Sustainable Buildings Coalition Government Minister responsible for Building Control and other matters, Andrew Stunnell MP, said that his main priorities are to get retrofitting going and to improve building design. He thought that people should be encouraged to take ownership of this problem – but he did not say how that would be brought about.
Enhanced public information was not cited, but the Minister thought that it will become “increasingly difficult to sell a house which has not been retrofitted under the Green Deal[ii] and some professional assessment as to how well it is doing”.
Lastly, is the Government using regulation to support the uptake of new green buildings, and the retrofitting of old ones?
In the above-mentioned Castle Debate, ERIC’s Professor Bob Lee reviewed the regulatory framework of laws which relate to buildings and sustainability. This was probably the first time that the laws relating to this matter have been and collated and considered. This disparate, piecemeal set of laws of relevance include:
1. Building Act 1984;
2. Part L (1A & B, 2A & B) of the Building Regulations 2010;
3. Climate Change and Sustainable Energy Act 2006;
4. Directive 2010/31/EU on Energy Performance of Buildings;
5. Clean Neighbourhoods & Environment Act 2005;
6. Site waste management regulations;
7. Planning & Compulsory Purchase Act 2004, s.39;
8. PPS 1, PPS 22 ;
9. TAN 12, 22;
10. Planning & Energy Act 2008 and the Merton rule;
11. Town & Country Planning (GPD)  (Amendment) (England) Order 2008; and
12. New Towns Act 1981 and provisions for eco-towns.
Professor Lee observed that there has been very little research into the cost effectiveness of these measures – what works, what doesn’t. There appears to be a serious lack of knowledge about the drivers for take up of green buildings or retrofitting them. In Professor Lee’s view the law relating to sustainable buildings is fragmented and ripe for reform – “there is vast array of [legal] mechanisms and it is time for consolidation and harmonisation”. This hardly amounts to a ringing endorsement of Government policy!
What conclusions can we reach? The signs are that the Government is not getting to grips with the magnitude of the challenge. Jon Lovell, Head of Sustainability at Drivers Jonas Deloittes put it well when he observed that the “massive” retrofit challenge is being undermined by several factors including: “…a widespread awareness deficit, a lack of transparency, confusing price signals and inadequate regulation” (Castle Debate on Sustainable Buildings).


[i] A series of London based debates organised by Pam Castle OBE and Sykes Environmental LLP, and supported by The Law Society and the ENDS Journal.

[ii] A Government scheme, to be introduced in the autumn of 2012, to encourage home energy efficiency improvements (insulation, solar, boiler replacement)  paid for by savings from energy bills.

About the author

Stephen Sykes

Stephen is an entrepreneur. He has built businesses in the following sectors: data, insurance, remediation and consulting.  With a background in environmental law, Stephen is the Chair of the UK Environmental Law Association, director of the Castle Debates and a Visiting Fellow at Birkbeck's Centre for Innovation Management Research.