Ottawa’s new research unit out to adjust attitudes to climate choice

Photo: Ezra Acayan, Getty Images

By John Woodside

Reporter on local journalistic initiative

Ottawa wants to know what it takes to convince Canadians to switch to electric vehicles and take other climate-friendly measures.

To find out, the government has designed a behavioral science and climate change program to uncover the best ways to motivate people to change.

Early priorities also include studying how to encourage energy-efficient retrofitting, according to documents obtained by the Canadian National Observer through a federal request for access to information.

The Behavior Change Program was launched in September under a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) signed by the Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC), Natural Resources Canada (NRCan) and the Privy Council Office’s (PCO) Impact and Innovation Unit.

The ECCC is interested in a wide range of issues, from how to promote a circular economy, where multiple products are recycled, resold, repaired, remanufactured and shared, to how Canadians would respond to increased transparency about government climate plans.

“Along with major shifts in energy, transportation, agriculture and other large-scale systems, the choices of individual Canadians and businesses will play an important role in the fight against climate change,” said ECCC spokeswoman Samantha Bayard.

“We need to do more faster, and we know that awareness and education in themselves are often not enough to drive behavior change.”

The ECCC says that behavioral science research will produce data on individuals’ choices to better understand barriers to climate action.

“It will help us translate real feelings, habits, beliefs, inequalities, and social contexts into practical ways to improve the design and delivery of programs, processes, rules, communications, and other interactions we have with Canadians,” Bayard said.

David Hardisty, an associate professor and chairman of the Department of Marketing and Behavioral Sciences at the University of British Columbia’s Sauder School of Business, said that understanding people’s behavior should be seen as a tool by many along with things like legislation. But citing the ongoing pandemic as an example where public health rules are being ignored by some people, he said it is clear that new rules are not always enough to drive change.

“Maybe we’ve underinvested in understanding human psychology and behavior in that arena, and it shows how one can not just rely on changing the laws,” he said. “Climate change is also a polarized problem, it’s a complicated issue and you can not just fix the law and everything will be taken care of.”

This behavioral science research program is not the first by the federal government. The Behavioral Sciences Unit was launched in 2015 and now has a strong focus on COVID-19 response.

Changing consumer behavior has been marked by the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) as an important way of tackling climate change, as some estimate that two to three billion people will join the ranks of middle-class consumers by 2050.

UNEP has said every nine months that the world’s population consumes more natural resources than could be produced sustainably in one year, and that changing consumption patterns are crucial to sustainable living on Earth.

“Achieving this goal requires decoupling economic growth and human welfare from the unsustainable use of natural resources,” reads a 2017 UNEP report.

UNEP has said that effective strategies to promote better choice are to make the greener choice the standard choice. Using the example of organ donation, the shift from opt-in to opt-out for donors drastically changed the number of organ donations, offering possible experiences of climate change. Germany, for example, has customers who use renewable energy as standard, which requires people to choose fossil fuels in a step that has led to increased green electricity consumption.

Hardisty said that behavioral science research provides probable possibilities for what might work to push for behavior change, but it is difficult to predict with absolute certainty. Researchers tend to trumpet what works, not what does not, he said. Still, green pushes that change buying habits, such as labeling emissions on food, can help.

“Different foods you eat have different climate impacts, and so there are (some research) that show if you have made climate labels correctly? It both improves people’s knowledge and also changes their behavior to make them choose more climate-friendly foods. ,” he said.

Another way to change behaviors to encourage greener choices may be through guilt. Since Halifax launched a strategy for clear plastic garbage bags, where neighbors could hypothetically see each other’s garbage, the city has reported significantly higher recycling rates.

Similarly, research found that Calgary residents were more likely to leave grass clippings on their lawns instead of packing them for trash after brochures were handed out with messages like “Your neighbors want you to ride on grass.”

Both ECCC and NRCan confirmed results of their behavioral science research will be made publicly available.

Two out of five fellows have already started work, while others are expected to be hired in the coming months. Wook Yang, a PhD candidate at the University of Toronto, works under NRCan’s energy efficiency program, while Katie Harper, a recent PhD candidate from Ryerson / X University, works within the ECCC’s mandate.

According to a note on the MOU, the program is scheduled to run until 2024, although it is currently only funded for this financial year, meaning the parties will reconsider its future in March. The expected cost for the next two years is about $ 1.5 million.

The research program is a three-pronged approach involving data collection, online surveys, and field experiments. The research unit will also “act mandate letter obligations,” according to the memo. These letters now contain far-reaching promises such as building climate-sustainable infrastructure, limiting oil and gas sector emissions, achieving a 100 percent net zero electricity grid by 2035, providing international climate finance, developing a government-wide contingency strategy. and to require federally regulated institutions to develop and disclose climate risks and net-zero plans.

John Woodside, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, working on the basis of CANADA’S NATIONAL OBSERVER.The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the Government of Canada.

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