The Korea Herald


[Lara Williams] Prod people into acting more greenly

By Korea Herald

Published : Jan. 16, 2024 - 05:30

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If there’s a month dedicated to self-betterment, it’s dark and dreary January. The gyms are full, the pubs are empty and green juices are flying off the shelves. At least for now.

Even with the best of intentions, the vast majority of New Year’s resolutions don’t last very long at all. Many goal-setters give up on their commitments within just three months. We’re now in the second week of January, and some of you may have already slipped up on your promises. There’s no judgment here; your columnist has already watered down one of her ambitions (we’re doing “damp” January now).

But such faltering is important to note because we’re going to need permanent behavior changes in order to meet our emissions targets. Consumer decisions won’t halt climate change alone, but collectively we can make the task much easier by, for example, reducing demand for fossil fuels or carbon-intensive products. The question is how to make that happen, especially when our psychology makes voluntarily changing habits very difficult.

One reason for our collective annual failure is that we don’t tend to set goals for ourselves in a useful way, making them large without specificity or accountability. Setting a goal to “save money” is nearly useless without a target and an action plan to support it -- such as, for example, setting aside $100 a month to reach a $1,200 target.

With that in mind, these might be more useful framings for things you could do to reduce your environmental impacts.

Instead of vowing to eat a more planet-friendly diet, you should narrow down what that means. If you’re not already a vegetarian or vegan, the best thing you could do to reduce your emissions is to cut out red meat, particularly beef. It might be more achievable to focus on a positive action rather than a subtractive one: Instead of the main target being to cut beef from your diet entirely, you could set a target to eat, say, five plant-based meals a week and find recipes -- or menus -- that you’re excited to try.

Likewise, food waste is responsible for around 6 percent of total greenhouse gas emissions -- three times that of aviation. But it’s quite hard to measure how much you’re wasting at home -- or it’s easy to shut your eyes as you drop bags of slimy salad, long forgotten at the back of the fridge, into the bin -- making it a difficult target to remain accountable to. But setting a goal to create meal plans, or batch cook, or find ways to be creative with leftovers should naturally lead to a reduction in wastage.

Other behavioral changes we’ll need to see widely adopted include investing in an electric vehicle or heat pump, insulating homes, buying energy-efficient appliances and using public transport or active modes like cycling for appropriate journeys.

If we all committed to doing better for the planet, it’d help shift demand to cleaner technologies, show clear policy support for green measures and reduce our energy consumption. But there are plenty of issues with relying purely on individual agency.

For example, consider the effects of inequality on our individual abilities to change. Insulation measures, heat pumps and electric vehicles all require sizable investments. Supermarkets in poorer neighborhoods often have fewer varieties of fresh produce which inhibits the ability of residents to adopt healthier, more plant-based diets. Changing or forming better habits requires a cognitive effort which will be harder for some than it is for others. While one household may have the time to commit to cycling to work or meatless Mondays, another might be focused on economic survival.

That’s why we need policy -- carbon taxes, subsidies, public information campaigns -- to support behavior change. But it’s a touchy subject that many politicians are reluctant to act forcefully on. In the UK, the importance of behavior change is recognized, with the stated goal being to make it “easier and more affordable for people to shift towards a more sustainable lifestyle while at the same time maintain[ing] freedom or choice and fairness,” according to energy minister Lord Callanan. There are grants for heat pumps and the Great British Insulation Scheme, which offers free or cheaper insulation measures, for example.

But that doesn’t go far enough, with the House of Lords Environment and Climate Change Committee calling the government’s approach “seriously inadequate.” It doesn’t help that UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak arguably made it a point of pride as he gears up for the next election, announcing last year that he had “scrapped” several imaginary policies including a meat tax and compulsory car-sharing.

Good policy to support sustainable lifestyle choices will not unfairly burden those who can least afford it, but it will make green options the no-brainer. Governments should not shy away from nudging people to behave more greenly with public engagement and price signals. After all, sometimes we all need a little help to do the right thing.

Lara Williams

Lara Williams is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering climate change. -- Ed.

(Tribune Content Agency)