When it comes to implementing green technologies, consumer behaviors are replete with contradiction: while it is cheaper to produce wind and solar energy today, many communities are defeating clean energy proposals because they find wind turbines and solar panels too ‘ugly’; the meat substitute industry is expected to grow seven-fold by 2025, but consumption of real meat is at an all-time high; it is more profitable for ranchers in Texas to set up windmills than cattle farms, but they are rejecting offers from energy developers because they find clean technologies too ‘liberal’.
These human realities require urgent attention if we want to get serious about not just proposing green technologies, but successfully implementing them.
Historically, most investments have been on the technological side of climate solutions. Since the Paris climate summit in 2015, public funding for climate-related research and development has increased by almost a third. More recently, in 2022 the U.S. adopted climate-related laws that together provided more than $500 billion for the energy transition. These investments are not limited to the public domain. Between 2021-2022, venture capital firms invested approximately $70 billion into clean-energy startups. As a result of these combined investments, 2022 was the first year when funding for clean energy matched global investments in fossil fuels.
However, what is being overlooked in this technology-fuelled investment boom is the other side of the equation: the human side of climate action. Solutions are only useful insofar as people accept and adopt them – and driving adoption requires a deep understanding of not only what’s driving human behaviour, but also why.
In our work at ReD Associates, a social science-based strategy consultancy, we have observed three potent behavioural barriers to the successful implementation of climate projects: burgeoning hostility and opposition to clean energy projects; deteriorating trust and confidence in ‘green’ promises; increasing climate awareness but an inability or unwillingness to act upon it.
Firstly, the more that green energy projects become a more visible part of everyday life, the more we see pushback against them. A study of clean energy projects between 2008-2021 in the US found 53 projects were delayed, stopped, or cancelled due to community concerns. Collectively, these projects represent approximately 9586 megawatts of potential generation capacity. To add to the complexity, this study found that in 79 per cent of the cases of community resistance, the project faced opposition from multiple stakeholders in the community.
Critical to negating this opposition is more systematic stakeholder engagement, in particular, the adoption of social science-based methodologies, which provide not just tools for understanding the needs, values, and aspirations of diverse groups, but also an action-oriented body of knowledge to find the common ground necessary for building a path forward.
Secondly, whilst consumers have access to more ‘green’ products and services than ever before, only a few companies and categories have successfully managed to encourage the uptake of this ‘green’ supply. To say that there is lack of consumer demand in general misses the crucial human questions. In fact, a recent study found that products making ESG-related claims averaged greater cumulative growth than products that did not over the same five-year period.
This behavioural resistance in the uptake of green alternatives arises when they feel like a compromise – their value is not comprehensive enough or simply does not resonate with consumers. This leads to low consumer demand and, in some cases, accusations of greenwashing that create consumer distrust of companies’ sustainability promises. In fact, a recent study revealed that over 70 per cent of Americans believe that companies ‘claim’ to be sustainable – even when their actions aren’t.
Finally, people are more aware of the detrimental impact of humans on the environment than ever before. However, to what extent this increased awareness has shifted consumer behaviours is unclear. The potential of demand-side climate strategies to reduce emissions is projected to be up to 70 per cent globally by 2050. However, it requires shifting not only consumers’ everyday choices but also society’s larger lifestyle norms such as flying or eating meat. While changing habits at the individual level is challenging, it is even more challenging to affect lifestyles at the societal level.
Philosopher Baptiste Morizot argues that humans perceive and understand other living beings ‘primarily as a backdrop, as a reserve of resources available for production, as a place of healing, or as a prop for emotional and symbolic projection.’ The social sciences, which take a systematic approach to understanding human societies, are especially well positioned to understand not only human behaviours but also their relationships with nature. While socio-cultural behaviours can ‘lock in’ societies to carbon-intensive patterns, they also offer potential opportunities to change social narratives and behaviours. A holistic understanding of the human barriers is necessary to tackle and fully realize the change that can be created by existing solutions and policies, as well as future ones.
Charlotte Vangsgaard is a partner at ReD with over 17 years of experience in driving social impact in both nonprofit and commercial organizations. Ujjwal Gupta is a manager at ReD Associates, who has contributed to research and papers for governments, Fortune 500 companies, global nonprofits and high-growth startups.