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Ottawa's new research unit out to adjust attitudes on climate choices

'Choices of individual Canadians and businesses will play an important role in the fight against climate change'
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Ottawa wants to know what it would take to convince Canadians to switch to electric vehicles and take other climate-friendly action. To find out, the government has designed a Behavioural 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 retrofits, according to documents obtained by Canada’s National Observer through a federal access-to-information request.

The behavioural change program was launched in September, according to a memorandum of understanding (MOU) signed by Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC), Natural Resources Canada (NRCan) and the Privy Council Office’s (PCO) Impact and Innovation Unit.

ECCC is interested in a wide range of questions — from how to encourage a circular economy that sees more products reused, resold, repaired, remanufactured and shared, to how Canadians would respond to increased transparency about the government’s 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 spokesperson Samantha Bayard. 

“We need to do more faster, and we know that awareness and education on their own are often not enough to drive behaviour change.”

ECCC says the behavioural science research will produce data about individuals’ choices to better understand barriers to climate action.

“It will help us translate real-life emotions, habits, beliefs, biases and social context into practical ways to improve the design and delivery of programs, processes, regulations, communications and other interactions we have with Canadians,” Bayard said.

David Hardisty, an associate professor and chair of the marketing and behavioural science division at the University of British Columbia’s Sauder School of Business, said understanding people’s behaviour should be thought of as one tool of many, alongside things like legislation. But citing the ongoing pandemic as an example where public health rules are flouted by some people, he said it’s clear new rules aren’t always enough to drive change.

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

This behavioural science research program is not the federal government’s first. The behavioural science unit was launched in 2015, and now has a major focus on COVID-19 response.

Shifting consumer behaviour has been flagged by the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) as an important way to address climate change given that some estimates project two to three billion people joining the ranks of middle-class consumers by 2050. The UNEP has said every nine months, the world’s population consumes more natural resources than could be sustainably produced in a year, and that changing consumption patterns is crucial to sustainable life on Earth.

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

The UNEP has said effective strategies to encourage better choices are to make the greener choice the default choice. Using the example of organ donations, the switch from opt-in to opt-out for donors dramatically transformed organ donation rates, offering possible lessons to be learned for climate change. Germany for example, by default has customers using renewable energy, requiring people to opt-in for fossil fuels in a move that has led to increased green electricity use.

Hardisty said behavioural science research gives likely options for what could work to nudge behavioural changes, but it’s difficult to predict with absolute certainty. Researchers tend to trumpet what works, not what doesn't, he said. Still, green nudges that shift purchasing habits, like labelling emissions on food, could help.

“Different food you eat has different climate impacts, and so there's (some research) showing if you have properly created climate labels … it both improves people's knowledge and also changes their behaviour to make them choose more climate-friendly foods,” he said.

Another way to change behaviour to encourage greener choices may be through guilt. Since Halifax launched a clear plastic garbage bag strategy, where neighbours could hypothetically see each other’s waste, the city has reported significantly higher recycling rates. Similarly, research found Calgary residents were more likely to leave grass clippings on their lawns rather than bagging them for garbage after pamphlets were given out with messages like “Your neighbours want you to grasscycle.”

Both ECCC and NRCan confirmed results of its behavioural science research will be made publicly available. 

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

According to a memo about the MOU, the program is scheduled to run until 2024, though it is currently only financed for this fiscal year, meaning the parties will reassess 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 studies, and in-field experiments. The research unit will also “address mandate letter commitments,” according to the memo. Those letters now include wide-ranging promises like building climate-resilient infrastructure, capping oil and gas sector emissions, achieving a 100 per cent net-zero electricity grid by 2035, providing international climate finance, developing a whole-of-government emergency preparedness strategy and requiring federally regulated institutions to develop and disclose climate risks and net-zero plans.

John Woodside, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Canada's National Observer