Onward Logo Colour White 2021

GETTING TO ZERO

Going Green: New technologies and behaviour change for net zero

How nudges and collective incentives can help people adopt new technologies and change their behaviours for net zero
Alex Luke
August 22, 2022
Going Green: New technologies and behaviour change for net zero

The UK has made great progress towards decarbonisation, but will not reach net zero by 2050 unless people rapidly adopt new technologies and change their behaviours. Fortunately, there are lots of ways Ministers can make these changes easier for people, using both behavioural nudges and incentives for collective action.

Alex Luke, Senior Researcher at Onward

Individuals going green will be responsible for one third of the changes that need to be made if the UK is to reach net zero by 2050.

Our new report – Going Green – finds that, although the UK has made strong progress towards reaching net zero, the majority of this has come from reducing emissions in the energy sector.

But people will be key in the next phase of the net zero transition. As we show in this paper, the Climate Change Committee’s 6th Carbon Budget implies that individual actions will be responsible for one third of the fall in the UK’s future emissions by 2050. 

In fact, of the three biggest changes needed to reach net zero – decarbonisation of the electricity supply, uptake of electric vehicles (EVs), and adoption of low-carbon heating systems – people will be responsible for the latter two.

We now need to get people going green through a rapid scaling up of both the adoption of new technologies and behavioural changes. 

However, at a time of rising prices, our research found that the public remain concerned about the personal costs involved and are sceptical about the performance of green technologies. To illustrate the scale of the challenge, the UK needs to retrofit 2 houses per minute between now and 2035 to meet the Government’s targets on energy efficiency.

Driving these changes is no simple task. The Government must learn from the failure of previous initiatives which, as our research has found, dented public trust in Whitehall-led environmental programmes. 

For example, the Coalition Government’s ‘Green Deal’ for retrofit saw only 15,000 households signed up out of 610,000 assessments before the scheme was scrapped in 2015 – a conversion rate of just 2.5%. This Government’s £2 billion Green Homes Grant programme aimed to retrofit 600,000 homes, but as of February 2022 had only benefited 43,000. There is some evidence that programmes like the Plug-In Car Grant which provides funds for new electric and hybrid vehicles have accelerated uptake, but concerns about the availability of public charge points remain.

These failures have been compounded by memories of previous bad advice from the government, including the U-turn on diesel cars which still lives long in the national memory. Controversy over a rumoured ‘boiler ban’ shows the potential political pitfalls of going too far or too fast.

Ministers must therefore give careful consideration to how best to encourage individuals to make the necessary changes. In this report, we propose that ministers should explore the potential for interventions which harness the way people behave and interact with each other, including “collective incentives” and “nudges”:

  • “Collective incentives” reward groups of people for acting together, rather than individually. These incentives were harnessed effectively when rolling out fibre-optic broadband to rural communities using “broadband vouchers”.
  • “Nudges” are interventions designed to gently encourage people towards desirable behaviours. They can include “social norms messaging”, which encourages people to act differently by highlighting how their behaviour compares to that of their neighbours and peers. 
Oct 4
9:30-
10:30

Type

Solutions

Individual incentives which aim to overcome the barrier of long payback periods and high upfront costs to uptake of energy-efficiency retrofits.

Collective incentives to drive the uptake of new net zero technologies. They reward people for acting together, rather than individually. They can be both positive or negative; either rewarding those who participate in or contribute to a collective action or penalising those who do not.

Nudges which gently encourage people to change their behaviours. They do not force people to do anything, but through the design of decisions, frameworks, and messaging including suggestions and positive (or negative) reinforcements they are gently steered towards a certain behaviour. They alter people’s behaviour without forbidding anything or significantly changing economic incentives. 

Individual:

  1.   ‘Retrofit as a service’ model, using blended finance with grants and subsidised loans attached to the property deed to finance street-by-street retrofit.
  2.   Stamp duty rebates of up to 50% for energy-efficiency measures and heat pumps installed within 24 months of moving in.

Collective:

  1.   Demand aggregation schemes introduced by Local or Combined Authorities, which use collective purchasing power to negotiate lower prices for new technologies for groups of buyers.
  2. A salary sacrifice scheme for green technologies, promoted through workplaces.

Nudges:

  1.   Individualised marketing schemes for public transport and active travel to be delivered by Local and Combined Authorities.
  2. Nudge new electric vehicle owners to time-of-use tariffs through email campaigns.
  3. Require energy suppliers to include social norms messaging on household energy bills.
  4. Consult on introducing a mandatory requirement for carbon labelling on food and beverage products.

Type

Individual incentives which aim to overcome the barrier of long payback periods and high upfront costs to uptake of energy-efficiency retrofits.

Collective incentives to drive the uptake of new net zero technologies. They reward people for acting together, rather than individually. They can be both positive or negative; either rewarding those who participate in or contribute to a collective action or penalising those who do not.

Nudges which gently encourage people to change their behaviours. They do not force people to do anything, but through the design of decisions, frameworks, and messaging including suggestions and positive (or negative) reinforcements they are gently steered towards a certain behaviour. They alter people’s behaviour without forbidding anything or significantly changing economic incentives. 

Solutions

Individual:

  1.   ‘Retrofit as a service’ model, using blended finance with grants and subsidised loans attached to the property deed to finance street-by-street retrofit.
  2.   Stamp duty rebates of up to 50% for energy-efficiency measures and heat pumps installed within 24 months of moving in.

Collective:

  1.   Demand aggregation schemes introduced by Local or Combined Authorities, which use collective purchasing power to negotiate lower prices for new technologies for groups of buyers.
  2. A salary sacrifice scheme for green technologies, promoted through workplaces.

Nudges:

  1.   Individualised marketing schemes for public transport and active travel to be delivered by Local and Combined Authorities.
  2. Nudge new electric vehicle owners to time-of-use tariffs through email campaigns.
  3. Require energy suppliers to include social norms messaging on household energy bills.
  4. Consult on introducing a mandatory requirement for carbon labelling on food and beverage products.

To test these ideas, we commissioned an online randomised controlled trial by the Behavioural Insights Team (BIT) to understand the impact of social norms messaging. We also conducted a series of focus groups in different parts of the country, to understand how people would respond to new forms of collective incentives designed to get them going green.

The results show that these types of interventions have potential. 

Including a “social norms” message about the pace at which others are buying electric vehicles increases the proportion of people willing to buy one from 38% to 43%. 

Collective incentive schemes which addressed the main barriers to electric vehicle adoption – price and charging point availability – would encourage one in seven people sceptical of buying an electric vehicle to change their mind. The ideas tested included a referral bonus scheme for EVs and demand aggregation and collective purchasing schemes for EV chargers.

The power of these incentives relies on the way in which people interact with one another. This was demonstrated in our focus groups, in which we strongly observed the presence of “peer effects” and “neighbourhood effects” when individuals discussed making changes to support net zero. For example participants positively referring to friends or family who had installed solar panels or bought electric cars.

Policies that harness these behavioural effects won’t be enough in and of themselves. However, they remain an under-utilised tool in the policymakers toolkit to reach net zero – one that should be used as we move into the next phase of the transition.

Endorsements

Dame Caroline Spelman, co-chair of the Getting to Zero commission

“As a former Environment Secretary, Liz Truss ought to know the devastating consequences of failing to reach net zero. Similarly, Rishi Sunak’s time as Chancellor will have warned him of an even bigger bill to the Treasury if we fail to act in a timely fashion.

“Whoever becomes Prime Minister should take note of the bold recommendations put forward by Onward to make it easier for the public to make the choices required for net zero”

Rt Hon Caroline Flint, co-chair of the Getting to Zero commission

“As Onward’s new research shows, people have a crucial role to play in reaching net zero through the adoption of clean and green technologies and behaviours. But many people are naturally concerned about the upfront costs of doing so.

“This new report sets how the Government can learn from the failures of previous schemes and help people to ‘go green’ in an affordable manner.”

Alex Sobel MP, Chair of the Net Zero All Party Parliamentary Group

“The next Prime Minister has a big challenge ahead if they really want to make good on their party’s promise to reach net zero by 2050. And the hardest part of the journey lies ahead. Once in Downing Street the next Prime Minister will need to quickly show us how they plan to hit the target. Onward’s paper has several good proposals that should be considered.”

Rt Hon Philip Dunne MP, Environmental Audit Committee Chairman

 “Successive administrations have set bold targets to meet the UK’s commitments under net zero. While these ambitions are admirable, our Committee has often found that there has been insufficient detail of how the targets are to be met. While Ministers have been swift to adopt successive carbon budgets recommended by the Climate Change Committee, the UK is currently not on track to meet them.

“Opinion poll after opinion poll highlights the support among the public for environmental issues. Businesses are also standing by ready to invest and to develop skills. But what is needed is clear direction from the Government.

“During the Committee’s recent work on energy efficiency, it was clear that the Government had not properly grasped how much it would cost to bring homes to at least EPC C. Policy initiatives like the Green Homes Grant, which was a good idea, were poorly implemented and did not instil confidence in the sector. Boosting the energy efficiency of the nation’s homes is essential, not only to help households afford to heat their homes, but also to help achieve both energy security and net zero: emissions from domestic properties account for 20% of UK greenhouse gas emissions.

“Installing insulation and retrofitting properties with energy efficiency measures can bring the UK back on track to achieve net zero goals, while also reducing household bills in the midst of the current cost of living challenges.”

Ruth Edwards MP, Member of Parliament for Rushcliffe

“Onward’s report lays bare the scale of the challenge we face to meet our net zero targets. In areas such as the energy efficiency of homes and low carbon heating systems, the UK needs to act fast if we are to stay on course. We can’t do so without taking people with us.

“This report puts forward practical suggestions to make it cheaper and easier for people to participate in our journey to net zero and is important food for thought for the next Prime Minister.”

Laura Sandys CBE, Chair of the Government’s Energy Digitalisation Taskforce

“Excellent straightforward recommendations that would really move the dial on retrofitting homes, build a highly lucrative retrofitting supply chain and deliver lower bills for homeowners.

“We need action and this report is clear about some very important shifts needed to reach net zero and save customers significant money.”


 

This report is produced as part of our Getting to Zero research programme.

Getting to Zero

Practical and popular ways to decarbonise the economy.

Established a year before COP26, Onward’s Getting to Zero programme is dedicated to developing practical and politically possible ways for the UK to meet its net zero ambitions and lead the world in decarbonisation.

Our Work

If you value the work we do support us through a donation.

Your contribution will help fund cutting edge research to make the country a better place.

Donate

Support Onward with a donation

£
Levelling Up
Tax cuts are necessary to make the UK economy more competitive, but the Government will also need to deliver better public services and stronger communities to really level up the UK.
Getting to Zero
Onward’s response to the Energy Crisis, setting out a 5-point plan for the new Prime Minister to help households and keep the lights on.
Social Fabric
Why young people are detaching from democracy and social norms – and what to do about it
Social Fabric
Summary report of an Onward and Airbnb roundtable, exploring how to help tourism and the visitor economy bounce back post-pandemic.
Science Programme
If the UK is to be a “science superpower”, we need to rethink our strategy for science.
Levelling Up
What do British voters – and Conservative voters in particular – think of proposals to build more grammar schools and expand academic selection?
Levelling Up
Tax cuts are necessary to make the UK economy more competitive, but the Government will also need to deliver better public services and stronger communities to really level up the UK.
Getting to Zero
Onward’s response to the Energy Crisis, setting out a 5-point plan for the new Prime Minister to help households and keep the lights on.
Social Fabric
Why young people are detaching from democracy and social norms – and what to do about it
Social Fabric
Summary report of an Onward and Airbnb roundtable, exploring how to help tourism and the visitor economy bounce back post-pandemic.
Getting to Zero
How nudges and collective incentives can help people adopt new technologies and change their behaviours for net zero.
Science Programme
If the UK is to be a “science superpower”, we need to rethink our strategy for science.