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Net Zero after Covid: Behavioural Principles for Building Back Better (Nick Chater)

1. Outline

Alongside our Sixth Carbon Budget Advice, the Climate Change Committee (CCC) are publishing a paper from Professor Nick Chater, the Committee’s behavioural science specialist. This paper considers three behavioural principles that explain how people have adapted so rapidly, and how we might “build back better” as we emerge from the pandemic, with a particular focus on meeting the challenge of dramatically reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions over the coming decades. The principles are:

  • The power law of practice: People, organizations and whole industries learn to adapt to new ways of working following a surprisingly predictable pattern. This can help predict where adaptation to new ways of living and working is likely to succeed or fail.
  • The status quo effect: People and organizations tend to prefer the current status quo, but can often adjust rapidly to prefer a new status quo. However we tend to systematically underestimate such effects, and therefore can sometimes resist changes that, in retrospect, we may ultimately prefer.
  • Unwritten rules: Our social behaviour is guided by implicit guidelines about what is “appropriate,” which can be somewhat independent of our personal values. Changing these implicit rules, alongside changes in regulation and the law, is crucial to adapting to new circumstances—and the pandemic has shown that rapid change is possible, though sometimes resisted (e.g. new norms about mask wearing, and social distancing).

2. Key recommendations

These principles of behaviour explain sources of “friction” in moving from one pattern of living and working to another. But if those frictions can be overcome, these principles also indicate that people and organizations can often adapt surprisingly quickly. Priority areas for policy development include:

  • Consolidating the digital transformation and shift to flexible working, including prioritizing fast broadband, and measures to bridge the “digital divide.”
  • Government and business “leading by example” on digital-by-default meetings where appropriate.
  • Enhancing town and city infrastructure and regulation, for walking and cycling, e-bikes and e-scooters, while introducing low/zero emissions zones.
  • Active measures may be required to encourage people back on to public transport, where there has been a shift to car travel.
  • Tracking levels of use, efficiency, and liking for, new patterns of living and working, to help guide future policy, and reduce negative impacts.
  • Developing a shared and positive vision of the opportunities and benefits of a transition to Net Zero by 2050 future through public engagement and debate.