Chapter 6

Foundations for behavioural change

Transforming societies towards sustainability requires that individuals, groups and the private and societal sectors alike, change their behaviours. Since behaviour is, to a large extent, guided by social norms, a change of norms has the potential to ignite the necessary large-scale behavioural shifts.

Norm changes can be leveraged through policies. Recent public-opinion surveys, together with the recent rise of youth movements and initiatives in the business and financial sectors, suggest that the time might be ripe for such policies.

Human behaviour is shaped by, and in turn shapes, the values and norms of people’s diverse social and cultural groups people are a part of, and the biophysical environments around them.

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Research has highlighted norm changes as a promising avenue to instigate large-scale behavioural change, as well as changes in economic and financial systems, yet this path has been largely overlooked so far in economic analysis.

Policies need to align with public opinion

Policy interventions can be the extra push needed for norms to shift, and altering the behaviour of only a few might be enough to put the social “snowball effect” in motion.

Several promising policy proposals to lower dependency on fossil fuel have been put forward. One such proposed intervention is for large-scale demonstration projects, like carbon neutral cities, which can help increase awareness and accelerate development of environmental technologies that could spread to other locations.

Policies can also target investors’ expectations, for instance to trigger a significant shift towards green investments. A “divestment movement” to encourage investors away from fossil fuels is one important part of bursting the carbon bubble. Simulations suggest that even a small group of socially responsible investors (10-20%) is enough to set a shift in motion if conditions are right.

However, as with all policies, timing is key, not least in the shifting of deeply rooted norms. Policies introduced without a preceding change in public opinion, risk failure.

According to two recent surveys, most people are concerned about the state of the environment and believe that action is needed. Of almost 20,000 people surveyed in G20 countries in 2021, 73% believe that the planet is close to serious “tipping points”, and 58% were very or extremely worried about the states of global commons such as the oceans and the climate. Of 26,000 surveyed Europeans, 90% agreed that greenhouse gas emissions should be reduced to a minimum, and 75% thought that economic recovery plans after the COVID-19 pandemic should mainly be invested in the green economy.

However, what people claim to be worried about and what they are willing act on can be very different things. For example, only 54% of respondents to the 2017–2020 World Values Survey prioritise protecting the environment over economic growth, a result echoed in other similar studies.

But societal trends indicate that this is a good time for policy action for sustainability: for example, increasing willingness from business leaders, financial institutions and large transnational corporations to contribute to climate and sustainability ambitions, and the youth-led global climate strike movement “Fridays for Future”.

If governments and other authorities support policies that help leverage and maintain the change of norms, a transformation towards sustainability is within reach.