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Carbon Brief Staff

Carbon Brief Staff

11.12.2013 | 1:45pm
ScienceThree ‘radical’ ideas to help individuals take climate action
SCIENCE | December 11. 2013. 13:45
Three ‘radical’ ideas to help individuals take climate action

A group of academics this week argued that policymakers need to focus on changing individuals’ behaviour, rather than ineffective ‘top-down’ measures to address climate change. Speaking at a conference hosted by the Tyndall Centre for Climate Research at the Royal Society, the experts argued that current policies that aim to keep warming to two degrees – such as voluntary targets, carbon markets, and renewable energy subsidies – were failing.

The experts said it was time for more bottom-up, radical, climate action. Here’s three proposals they argued might work.

1) A ‘carbon card’

One proposal recommended consumers carried a ‘carbon card’ to track their energy consumption. By tracking consumption, people that used less could be rewarded, while those with large ‘carbon footprints’ would have to pay to pollute.

People would use their cards to buy energy, or fuel for their cars, with those amounts converted into carbon dioxide emissions (with the help of a little extra data on the energy efficiency of people’s homes, and how much petrol their cars needed). Those that came in under a government-allocated amount could then sell their extra carbon credits to those that wanted to emit more – a system known as ‘personal carbon trading’.

carbon card

What a ‘carbon card’ could look like. Not that exciting, really.

The technology already exists to make the schemes work in developed economies, said Dr Tina Fawcett, Senior Researcher at the University of Oxford’s Environmental Change Institute. One scheme is currently being trialled in Australia, with the cost to the consumer of rolling out the schemes being “tens of pounds each year”, she said.

But the idea has struggled to get off the ground in the UK. MPs considered the plan in 2008, but said the schemes were too ‘administratively complex’ to roll out on a large scale. And the idea has struggled to gain any traction with policymakers in this country since.

2) The shame game

Another idea wouldn’t require any government involvement at all: shaming energy-profligate households.

Professor Richard Wilk from Indiana University’s Center for Archaeology in the Public Interest called for an annual awards ceremony which publicly named and shamed households failing to do their bit in addressing climate change, and awarded those that improved. He said the scheme could be run by a team of volunteers.

carbon trophy

What a ‘carbon consumption trophy’ could look like. Maybe.

One advantage of publicly shaming wasteful households is that those who are making an effort see them being held to account, he argued. According to Wilk, persuading the public everyone is doing their bit – or will be outed for failing to do so – is key to any attempt to change people’s behaviour.

It’s unclear whether or not such a scheme would encourage high emitters to change their behaviour, however. Those that are shamed could ‘push back’ and consume more, Wilk admitted – alienating currently high emitting sections of the population, and potentially doing more harm than good.

3) Don’t just talk; listen

Striking a more conciliatory note, Dr Chris Shaw from the University of Sussex’s Science and Technology Policy Research Unit said the public should be included in conversations about climate change from the outset,.

He argued politicians and researchers are currently doing way too much talking, and not enough listening. Simply telling people that the internationally agreed benchmark of  ‘two degrees’ of warming is dangerous is not enough to make them want to act, he said. Instead, there needs to be more dialogue so the public can decide what a ‘dangerous’ level of climate change is for itself.

The difficulty is getting all those people together, he concedes. As such, policymakers need to develop new ways of engaging the public in a conversation about climate change impacts.

A good example is the the Department of Energy and Climate Change’s ‘2050 calculator’ (shown below), he said. The tool allows people to play around with different climate policies – changing how the UK’s electricity is generated, for instance – and shows how this impacts emissions.

DECC 2050 calculator

The Department of Energy and Climate Change’s 2050 calculator. We need more of these, according to Shaw…

If similar tools can be developed, Shaw argues, people will be more likely to change their lifestyles and emit less.


But are these proposals enough to significantly cut emissions? The experts conceded that on their own: no, they’re probably not. That doesn’t mean radical alternatives shouldn’t be included in efforts to address climate change, they argued.

In the UK there are currently few policies to engage individuals on the issue of climate change. As more people get smart meters and sign up to the government’s energy efficiency schemes, households may become more aware of how their activity affects energy use and emissions.

Getting the public on board with these ideas in the first place means engaging at an earlier stage – something of a departure from the government’s traditional top-down approach. And if the public does get onside, these ideas may not seem so ‘radical’ in years to come.


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