Climate change in Africa helped trigger cultural advances and changed human behaviour over 100,000 years ago. Could human behaviour in the 21st century be triggered to change the climate? John Barwise looks at recent developments in behavioural science to find out.

Sites in southern Africa preserve a rich record of early human culture and recent archaeological evidence suggests a close link between human behaviour and climate change. Details are presented in the report Development of Middle Stone Age Innovation Linked to Rapid Climate Change, which indicates that several Middle Stone Age industries came together during periods of increased rainfall but seemed to disappear during the transition to drier climatic conditions.

Co-author of the report Professor Ian Hall said: “Climate-driven pulses in southern Africa and more widely were probably fundamental to the origin of key elements of modern human behaviour in Africa, and to the subsequent dispersal of Homo sapiens from its ancestral homeland.”

Environmental psychology is an interdisciplinary science that focuses on the interaction between humans and their surroundings. Human behaviour is about how we respond which, according to Bernd Schmidt of the University of Passau, is further influenced by physical, emotional, cognitive and social factors and their interactions. Other studies also suggest our cognitive skills give us the ability to adapt and even thrive in a changing environment.


The general consensus is that planet Earth is warming up and the climate is changing as a result of human impacts. Most would agree that we need to do more to reverse this trend. A considerable amount of money, resources and political will has gone into finding technological solutions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions (GHG). Further resources are now going into engineering solutions to adapt to flooding and other extreme weather events that are an inevitable consequence of climate change.

Technological fixes have proved to be very effective. Integrated renewable energy systems, smart monitoring and sophisticated control technologies have improved energy efficiency and reduced our dependency on fossil fuels. Energy consumption has actually fallen in the UK in recent years and we are still on target to meet our carbon reduction targets.

But technology has its limitations. With the economy showing positive signs of recovery, consumer spending up and population levels in the UK set to grow by over 9 million in the next 25 years, there is a strong possibility that energy consumption will start to rise again. The Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) estimates that electricity consumption — a major source of GHG emissions — is set to double between now and 2050.

There is little room for complacency. For sustainability to work in the long term, we need to go beyond technological fixes and think about human efficiencies. But are we prepared to do things differently? Can we change our habits and behaviour?

Despite all the “green” hype and eco-friendly products now on the market, it seems most of us are reluctant to change our behaviour. There is a growing number of dedicated “green consumers” out there, but the rest of us either do not believe there is a problem or are simply too complacent to think about how we can change the climate. Recent research by the social enterprise group Behaviour Change suggests that “Save the planet” campaigns by environmental groups and marketing groups do not seem to work and can even produce a negative response, either because we feel guilty or because there is just too much green hype.

A BIT of progress

Most people have probably never heard of the Behavioural Insights Team (BIT) and, although the title suggests something out of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four, its work could have a major influence on how we manage climate change in the future. BIT started life in 10 Downing Street with the aim of bringing together inter-related academic disciplines such as psychology and social anthropology to work with government departments to develop ideas, from behavioural sciences to public policies.

One of its commissions was to consider evidence from behavioural economics and psychology to develop a new approach to enabling people, at home and work, to reduce their energy consumption. This is very much work in progress but early release of the programme Behaviour Change and Energy Use, commissioned by the Cabinet Office, DECC and Communities and Local Government, provides some insight into various new initiatives to encourage behaviour change and reduce energy consumption.

BIT has put in place four large field trials to encourage the uptake of energy efficiency products for households and communities. The programme is aligned with the Government’s Green Deal and Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI), including how we can use information more effectively to encourage people and communities to be more efficient. Action and behaviour within government departments is also tackled, as well as new initiatives in the business community and non-governmental organisations (NGOs).

Green Deal has not attracted much support from the domestic markets. The programme acknowledges there is a natural aversion to the hassle of installing energy-efficient measures and recognises households may need additional prompts and encouragements, such as including additional upfront financial incentives, as part of the Green Deal scheme. One pilot scheme offered a one-month council tax holiday whilst another trial introduced vouchers that householders could use to redeem products or services.

Social influence can also affect behaviour and is seen as critical to the widespread adoption of pro-environmental behaviour. One of the trials is using social networks to harness support for domestic energy-efficiency measures. The assumption is that if one person installs a particular energy-saving product, such as heating thermostats on radiators, then peer group pressure kicks in and others in the network may follow.

Taking this idea to the next level, BIT considered offering rewards at community level to incentivise whole communities to change their behaviour. A pilot project involving DECC and energy supplier E.ON is trialling the impacts of offering collective rewards, versus a standard offer of green products.

Regarding the RHI scheme, BIT highlighted the difficulties in assessing what our priorities might be. For example, some people might prefer short-term financial rewards rather than waiting for higher rewards in the future. There are also issues about individual intentions within a household and whether households place a value on being green, or whether they simply want lower energy bills.

Information is power

Helping people reduce consumption through better information is covered in some detail, and while information campaigns can increase awareness, the report acknowledges that this does not always result in a reduction in energy use. Some energy-consuming behaviours are habitual, such as turning lights on or off, and people are often reluctant to change their habits. The Behavioural Insight Team suggests that the roll-out of smart meters will be a significant step forward because they provide real-time feedback on the effects of behaviours and could be used to support other forms of feedback and advice.

Another option is to provide consumers with information on how their energy consumption compares with similar households. This scheme is currently being trialled in the States under the Opower Home Energy Reporting Program and also here in the UK in a partnership between DECC, Opower and energy company First Utility. This type of scheme sounds suspiciously like “keeping up with the Jones” but apparently it can be highly effective in promoting behaviour change.

All homes and most commercial buildings require an Energy Performance Certificate (EPC). This provides valuable information to buyers about the energy use and carbon emissions of a building, with recommendations suggesting ways to improve energy performance. Yet research carried out by Consumer Focus suggests only 18% of house buyers are influenced by the EPC and only 17% of people actually follow through on recommendations in an EPC report.

The way information is presented plays a key role in how people respond and BIT has redesigned the front page of the EPC with much clearer signposting to precipitate more action towards improving energy efficiency. The graphs that previously appeared on page one of the EPC have now been replaced with a simple clear message focusing on heating costs and potential savings, and not just on the environmental benefits. BIT expects this simple redesign of the EPC will have a more direct effect on property purchases, citing the 3.6% added premium on similar EPCs in the Netherlands. More new home purchasers are also expected to take up at least some of the recommendations presented in the EPC.

Greening government

Several years ago the Government began the process of implementing environmental management systems (EMS) in various Whitehall departments. More recently Greening Government Commitments was published to demonstrate continued commitment to sustainability across central government departments. Both these initiatives improved environmental performance within departments and established green procurement policies across their multi-billion pound supply chains.

A recent and more ambitious initiative aims to reduce GHG emissions by 25% by 2015 across 3000 government buildings. This sends out a clear message that the Government is not only committed to reducing emissions but is leading by example. The challenge is to engage over 300,000 civil servants in what BIT defined as “changing defaults in government buildings”. Default controls set for heating, lighting and ventilation are being changed to “optimal core hour windows” to ensure buildings are not overheated or overcooled. Social norms are being used to encourage behaviour change by publishing monthly performance league tables and installing “real-time” displays to provide real data of energy use and to raise awareness of what various departments are achieving.

The Government has already exceeded its 10% GHG emissions target and is on course to meet its more ambitious target of 25% by 2015. Changing employee behaviour in the civil service should also stimulate similar action in the private sector. A new “Responsibility Deal” has been set up, inviting businesses, NGOs and other public sector organisations to join a collective commitment for long-term emissions reductions. Using the leverage of social networks, Responsibility Deal partners will publish their pledges on a trusted government website allowing customers, partners and the public to monitor their performance.


Behavioural change is an emerging field of environmental psychology and insights from the Government’s Behaviour Change and Energy Use programme suggest that rewards and recognition drive innovation and innovation drives change. Results from the projects currently underway are encouraging and there will no doubt be more behaviour change schemes introduced in the future. Whether or not behaviour change can change the climate in the long term remains to be seen, but we probably won’t have to wait another 100,000 years for archaeologists to tell us.

Last reviewed 29 July 2014