Cutting carbon is a people problem, not just a technical one.  Individual behaviour and preferences make a massive difference in determining which carbon-savings measures are likely to be adopted, and thus how much impact they’ll have.  Hampshire County Council wanted to probe the knotty question of which measures will work best in cutting emissions – not in the lab, but in the real world.  So they teamed up with Kent & Hertfordshire County Councils and Southampton University to mount an ambitious project to help answer this.

Their results provide a goldmine of data and insights on public attitudes.  They also draw the important conclusion that focussing on environmental benefits may not be the best way of promoting behaviour change.  The findings will be relevant to councils everywhere, and also to green groups looking to develop their own climate action projects.  They help show not just where to focus efforts, but how to focus them.   In this blog, Jonathan Baker, explains the thinking behind the project and some of the headline results.


How did this project come about?

Hampshire County Council has declared a Climate Emergency and is committed to a county-wide target of being carbon neutral by 2050 and also resilient to the impacts of a 2C temperature rise.  To reach these targets, it recognised that significant changes in the lifestyle and behaviours of residents will be necessary.  But the evidence base on public attitudes to different carbon reduction measures was weak.

So that its policy and interventions could be based on robust evidence it tasked the County Council’s Insight and Engagement Unit with delivering initial research to inform its approach to behaviour change.  We teamed up with Kent and Hertfordshire County Councils to carry out the study.  By widening its scope it made the results more robust and representative.  A PhD student from the University of Southampton took on the key task of calculating CO2 savings for different citizen behaviours.


What behaviours did you focus on?

We chose 23 citizen actions under five broad headings:

  • Energy and water use
  • Travel
  • Diet
  • Purchasing and consumption
  • Climate resilience

These varied from actions that are relatively easy to adopt, like switching to a green energy tariff, to those that are harder or more expensive to achieve, such as insulating your home or buying and electric car.


What did the project involve?

There were three main elements:

1. Reviewing the behaviour change literature

We started by exploring theories on what would affect citizen’s capability, opportunity and motivation to enact climate friendly behaviours. We then reviewed local, national and international evidence on best practise in behavioural interventions on citizen emission reduction and resilience. By assessing the quantity and outcome of research we were able to determine for each of the 23 actions whether behaviour change campaigns were effective.

2. Understanding willingness, barriers and motivations to conduct climate friendly behaviours

We carried out a survey of over 3,000 people, representative of the South East, and conducted 4 focus groups in various districts in Hampshire.  From the survey, we were able to determine willingness to conduct each of the 23 actions, broken down by different demographic groups.  Using this feedback we were able to understand what motivations and barriers citizens faced, which gave us clues on what would be the most effective communication strategy to engage them.

3. Calculating carbon savings

We calculated carbon savings from 18 carbon emission reduction behaviours to understand where shifting citizen behaviour would have the largest impact (we excluded actions not directly related to carbon savings).  The first step was to work out the savings per person if that action was taken up.  We then used the survey results to gauge how many would actually adopt it across the county, and what the total savings would be.

When looking at the carbon savings from working from home, for example, data on current commuting practices show the average commuting distance is 2,054km a year, with 78% travelling by car.  Factoring this in and assuming a person switched to working at home 20% of the time we estimated they would save 102kg CO2e each year. With the survey showing that 47% of respondents said they would be willing to try this, we were able to calculate total savings would amount to 70 million kg CO2e across the whole county.


What were the key findings?

The study allowed us to rank different measures in terms of how large the aggregate carbon savings would be for the county, and also score them on how easy they are to achieve and how much influence the county has in changing people’s behaviour.  The graphic below shows the estimated total carbon savings from each measure across the whole county, taking into account people’s willingness to adopt them (click on the image to see an enlarged view).

Coming up with these figures involves a lot of built-in assumptions, many of which can be challenged.  However they provide a valuable indication of which measures are likely to yield the largest results in terms of actual carbon savings, and the relative order of magnitude of the savings.

Installing renewable energy devices in your home came out as offering the biggest single opportunity in terms of carbon savings.  This is helped by the fact that 58% of survey respondents said they would be willing to try this.  Changing to a green energy tariff and getting an electric car came next, followed by cutting down on business air travel and installing home insulation.

Further down the list are a range of measures which are worthwhile for other reasons, but don’t save as much carbon as we may assume.  Examples include adopting active travel measures (17m kg savings), buying more locally produced food (14m kg), and recycling better (3m kg).

The block diagram below puts it all together, showing from the size of the blocks which measures have the greatest impact.

How willing are people to adopt the various measures?

The graphic below helps illuminate this.  Measures are ranked in terms of how resistant people were to adopt them.  The red bar shows the proportion of people who said they were “not willing” or “can’t” adopt this measure. Top of the list is cutting down on flying. Reducing dairy and meat consumption were also high up, although a significant proportion said they are “willing”to consider this (in yellow) or are “already doing it “(in green).  As you go down the list, the yellow and green colours dominate, suggesting increasing willingness to adopt these measures.

Were you surprised by any of the findings?

While it is clear that people are becoming more aware and concerned of the environmental impacts of their actions, our research suggested that communicating about carbon savings will not always initiate behaviour change. In our focus groups, we asked people who were willing to undertake actions what communications should focus on to promote behaviour change. Financial savings, ease of the behaviour change and improvement to health came out as the key motivators found to promote behaviour change in residents. This demonstrates that by using environment as a secondary messenger in our communications, rather than the main focus, we will have a better chance of influencing behaviour.

This is illustrated in the graph below that shows which are the strongest motivators for different behaviour change.  It is striking how finance (in orange) features most often, and environmental considerations (in green), only twice.

How has COVID-19 shifted opinions on Climate Change?

With our survey going live just after the COVID-19 outbreak, we were able to capture an interesting perspective on how COVID-19 could affect citizen climate action. We found that many people could see how the COVID-19 pandemic reduced their carbon emissions, from traveling less to changing diets.  Many reported that they would like to continue some of these behaviours post-COVID-19, as these comments reflect:

“Previously my employer frowned upon working from home. Now it is our only choice and they’ve made it possible. I’m hoping the government encourages employers to continue home working as first choice instead of office based roles as much as possible”

“It’s made me think about food waste and making sure that I don’t waste food and I cook more from what I’ve got stored rather than go out. So we’ve used up out of date stuff in the cupboards. Also the worries over food shortages make you more aware of throwing stuff away”

“It’s totally changed my shopping habits. Will now buy locally from farm shops”

“Being at home so much, especially when the weather was colder, has given me the impetus to look into more insulation for the flat, once I am able to.”

What has the Council done as a result of the study?

Following this, Hampshire County Council has invested in a solar group-buying scheme, ‘Solar Together Hampshire’, with iChoosr, bringing homeowners together to get solar panels at a competitive price.  We are also creating a community energy network with Community Energy South, and supporting the Greening Campaign, promoting the community and social element that we found was required when shifting to climate friendly behaviour.

How could others make use of the results?

The full Climate Change Behavioural Insight Report can be downloaded as a powerpoint presentation. We hope the findings in this report are useful and they should be meaningful for many different local areas or authorities. It is possible to closely adapt findings to smaller areas (cities or local authorities) to make it more representative. We anticipate partners using this research in a number of ways:

  • Using the general findings to create communications and marketing strategies.
  • Adapting the data to your locality.

We recommend testing and confirming that the approaches described are effective – we would welcome any collaboration or results of activities so that best practice can be established.  You can find out more about the project by contacting: 

Jonathan Baker is a Senior Research Officer, in the Hampshire County Council’s Insight and Engagement Unit.  He can be contacted at: 






Pin It on Pinterest

Share This