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JRF report: Climate change and sustainable consumption: what do the public think is fair?

This study was written by Tim Horton and Natan Doron and published by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.  Through a series of focus groups, it explores ways that people's sense of fairness around sustainable consumption and climate change could be used to build public support for behaviour change and sustainability policies.

The report:

  • asks if people can look at climate change and sustainable consumption in terms of fairness;
  • explores the basis of views about fairness in this context and investigates the types of information required for people to look at the issue in this way;
  • considers the extent to which looking at climate change in terms of fairness can motivate support for behaviour change; and
  • examines what people think is fair in actions to reduce household CO2 emissions.

Key points:

  • Current behaviour-change strategies tend to focus on the choices individuals make in isolation and often seek to appeal solely to financial self-interest. This could be a missed opportunity to appeal to other motives that could be more effective in changing behaviour.
  • Most project participants had an intuitive notion of excessive consumption – for example, drawing distinctions between 'necessary' and 'wasteful' behaviours, or between 'necessary' and 'luxury' behaviours.
  • The most important factor in triggering people's sense of fairness was the notion of resource scarcity – in this case, limitations in the earth’s capacity to absorb carbon dioxide (CO2) while avoiding dangerous climate change. Most participants tended to feel excessive consumption and unequal consumption were problems in the context of resource scarcity, but not otherwise.
  • It was often a focus on the behaviour of others that brought this fairness dimension to life. In particular, participants wanted to prevent unfair free-riding – where some people would avoid reducing their CO2 emissions to sustainable levels whilst others were dutifully trying to do so.
  • While no-one especially liked the idea of regulation in itself, there was a strong feeling that if households were going to make efforts or sacrifices to reduce consumption then everyone should be required to do so.

This has implications for policy: while 'nudging' techniques might influence individual behaviour it can be hard to sustain cooperation when others are seen to be free-riding. Encouraging behaviour change or building support for sustainable consumption measures could be more effective if people understand the broader social issues and see the behavioural requirements as necessary and legitimate.
The full report is included below, or for the summary version see here.

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24 Jan 2012
Research trails