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How can data on household behaviours help us to tackle climate change?

How we live, work and travel all have an impact on our energy use and carbon emissions. New approaches to collecting data on household behaviours help to establish a clearer picture of the effects on climate change and the implications for achieving net zero.

Around 20% of the greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change can be attributed directly to households. This makes our homes and activities of households one of the highest contributors to emissions in the UK.

Household data, such as those gathered by Understanding Society – a representative survey of UK households – can help researchers to understand the opportunities and challenges of changing the way that people live, work and travel.

As a panel study, Understanding Society observes changes in people’s lives over time. Such studies tell us about human behaviours and outcomes, within and across generations, and how these are influenced by social and environmental factors, life events and public policies.

We are increasingly used to the concept of ‘collective intelligence’ – bringing varied knowledge and expertise together to tackle complex problems. It is familiar in business, computer science and sociology. The challenge of climate change is nothing if not complex, so is this an approach that we can use to investigate household transitions to net zero?

To examine this challenge, and support the COP26 climate conference in Glasgow in November 2021, Understanding Society brought together groups with an interest and stake in the problem to identify key research questions and ‘dive’ into the household data. Organised in partnership with the UK Data Service and The Young Foundation, people from academia, government departments and charities came together to explore different research questions.

What are the costs of net zero for households and countries?

The effects of households’ activities in the transition to net zero are both direct and indirect, so they will face multiple cost pressures. The direct effects facing households, compared with, say, specific business sectors or public services, are generally well understood. The largest direct costs, for example, include domestic energy bills and use of cars.

The indirect effects are less well understood, but they could be huge. Research from the United States suggests that households could be indirectly responsible for as much as 80% of greenhouse gas emissions. These include ‘supply chain emissions’ from the consumption of goods and services – particularly for food, furnishing and supplies, as well as clothing – which contribute to national and overseas emissions.

As a result, if households were to reduce or change the nature of their consumption, this could have a significant effect on reducing emissions.

Yet politicians tend to prefer supply-side policies, such as technological innovation and green energy generation to combat emissions. These are seen as less directly intrusive into daily life, and perhaps more politically feasible as a result.

Given the uncertainties that typically surround technological innovations and investments, moving from a fossil fuel economy to a low-carbon economy will also require significant reductions in our carbon consumption across a range of high-carbon fronts. For instance, many households nowadays own multiple vehicles and people want to travel more.

The transition to a low-carbon economy will generate new opportunities and benefits, such as cleaner air and fewer pollution-related deaths. But there will also be a huge economic bill that will shape the pace of change and individual households’ ability to adapt.

The economic and fiscal consequences of the transition to net zero are subject to many sources of uncertainty and could rise significantly due to adverse physical risks of climate change if taking early action is delayed.

The Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR), in its Fiscal Risks Report (July 2021), estimates that ‘between now and 2050 the fiscal costs of getting to net zero in the UK could be significant, but they are not exceptional’.

Ultimately, economic and fiscal costs will need to be divided between the government (via taxes and spending), business and households. The spread of costs across sectors will in turn depend on the many policy levers available on top of carbon taxes and emissions trading schemes, including public subsidies and investment, bans and other regulations. What is clear from the OBR report is that the costs will need to be paid upfront but it will take years for savings to accrue.

In its Net Zero Review in October 2021, HM Treasury notes that, ‘as with all economic transitions, ultimately, the costs and benefits of the transition will pass through to households through the labour market, prices and asset values. These costs and benefits will not fall evenly across households’.

Households operate as a complex system. Their energy consumption is not only determined by physical factors, but also socio-economic ones. As the Treasury states, there will be substantial variation across income groups, driven by factors such as how much energy they use, the type of house they live in, and whether they drive a car. These differences will have a significant influence over a household’s overall exposure to the transition.

Exploring household behaviours using Understanding Society data

Designed as a climate change data dive, last year’s event by Understanding Society was an online collaborative process. Delegates discussed and identified research questions that they wanted to investigate, clustered around four themes: pro-environmental behaviours; green jobs; transport; and political and community engagement.

We know from previous evidence, that we can influence people to change individual behaviours depending on what that change involves. The introduction of a charge for plastic carrier bags is an excellent example. But this research also shows that there was little spill-over between different types of pro-environmental behaviours. Although people started reusing shopping bags, this wasn’t accompanied by an increase in switching off lights in unused rooms or turning the tap off while brushing teeth.

The data dive process generated real-time descriptive findings and new insights, but also revealed the need for further thinking when it comes to trying to co-produce complex social research on a limited timescale.

The data show that the actions people are most likely to take are those that have the smallest impact on decarbonisation. This is not only because people are often confused about what actions have the biggest effect, but also because behavioural changes have very different effort/impact trade-offs. Changes such as walking or cycling to work instead of driving, or taking fewer flights, require much greater effort compared with switching off-lights in unused rooms or conserving water – but for bigger impacts.

The data also tell us how many car commutes could plausibly be replaced by active travel. Using pre-pandemic waves of Understanding Society data (collected in 2018/19), our analysis shows that around 10% of commuting journeys were under 1.5 miles and just under 40% were less than five miles.

Of course, some journeys such as dropping children at school before work can be more difficult to shift. But even allowing for people’s individual circumstances, this analysis reveals that there are demand-side opportunities.

Future challenges

The data dive – using only the publicly available version of the data – also revealed some longer-term challenges. Linking rich survey data with administrative sources will be vital for future research.

There is a range of environment-related data sources that Understanding Society is interested in linking to. These are mainly household and property-level data, and include car ownership and use, domestic gas/fuel consumption, and home energy efficiency ratings.

Linked environment data provide information on energy use and patterns of consumption. This will give researchers a better understanding of these factors in the context of people’s behaviour, attitudes, responsibilities, health, work and other statuses.

They also allow behaviour in response to government policy interventions to be tracked. Data from the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA) linked to household information are now available. Work is also underway to link Understanding Society data with the National Energy Efficiency Data-Framework (NEED).

Understanding labour market transitions to ‘green jobs’ is likely to prove much more difficult. While not perfect, there are classification systems that measure the relative ‘greenness’ of industries, but these cannot be used to understand individual-level job transitions. There is currently no classification system for measuring the ‘greenness’ of occupations (as there is for, say, measuring the technological component of jobs).

It is therefore difficult to assess to what extent the transition to a low-carbon economy is also likely to improve the labour market and working conditions for those moving into green jobs (beyond average estimates for specific industries).

Separating the effects of moving to a low-carbon economy (and its distributional consequences) and technological innovation could present further research challenges. For example, a parcel delivery driver who switches from using a diesel vehicle to one that is purely electric is unlikely to experience much change in the short term. But in the longer term, the person may be displaced by a drone or an autonomous vehicle – a much more significant change.

Understanding the distributional consequences of climate change for households, discovering which behaviours to target and estimating the potential effects of policy options will be vital in the transition to net zero. Establishing a clear picture of the potential implications for equalities across gender, ethnicity, disability, local communities and so on will also be important for a fair transition. This will depend on granular data and exploiting opportunities for data linkage.

Where can I find out more?

Who are experts on this question?

  • Raj Patel
  • Michelle Escobar
  • Sanna Marakannen
  • Cristina Peñasco
  • Benjamin Sovacool
  • Dimitri Zenghelis
Author: Raj Patel, Associate Director of Policy, Understanding Society
Photo by Antonio Diaz on iStock
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