How to live a more sustainable life? This question generates a lot of debate that is focused on what individuals can do in order to address problems like climate change. For example, people are encouraged to shop locally, to buy organic food, to install home insulation, or to cycle more often.
But how effective is individual action when it is systemic social change that is needed? Individuals do make choices, but these are facilitated and constrained by the society in which they live. Therefore, it may be more useful to question the system that requires many of us to travel and consume energy as we do.
Policies to address climate change and other environmental problems are threefold: decarbonisation policies (encouraging renewable energy sources, electric cars, heat pumps), energy efficiency policies (decreasing energy input/output ratio of appliances, vehicles, buildings), and behavioural change policies (encouraging people to consume and behave more sustainably, for instance by adopting the technologies promoted by the two other policies).
The first two strategies aim to make existing patterns of consumption less resource-intensive through technical innovation alone. These policies ignore related processes of social change, which perhaps explains why they have not led to a significant decrease in energy demand or CO2-emissions. Advances in energy efficiency have not resulted in lower energy demand, because they don’t address new and more resource-intensive consumption patterns that often emerge from more energy efficient technologies.
Likewise, renewable energy sources have not led to a decarbonisation of the energy infrastructure, because (total and per capita) energy demand is increasing faster than renewable energy sources are added.
Consequently, the only way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is to focus more on social change. Energy efficiency and decarbonisation policies need to be combined with “social innovation” if we want energy use and carbon emissions to go down. This is where behavioural change policies come in. The third pillar of climate change policy tries to steer consumer choices and behaviours in a more sustainable direction.