These social incentives push individuals to adopt more sustainable lifestyles

The second part of the latest IPCC report, published on 28 February, warns us once again about the devastating effects of ongoing global environmental change.

Acting to curb global warming requires not only understanding the issues, but also a holistic approach to motivating people to choose more sustainable lifestyles.

This involves identifying the factors that drive them to minimize their negative impacts on the environment – for example, the conversion to soft mobility, the rejection of disposable items or the effort to recycle – and those that hinder this process.

Obstacles to virtuous behavior

Many obstacles hinder our desire to adopt a more environmentally friendly lifestyle: the most common are psychological, socio-cultural, economic and structural.

The environment in which individuals develop – neighbors, friends, family – will e.g. have an impact on especially “collective” initiatives such as reducing energy consumption or the use of electric cars.

The cost of sustainable solutions can also discourage individuals from making energy-saving improvements due to budgetary constraints and the consequent cost of alternative projects to the use of fossil fuels.

In this case, financial measures (or monetary incentives) such as a purchase subsidy or a tax cut could be used to support green technologies.

Social incentives

In addition to traditional policy measures such as taxes and subsidies aimed at promoting environmentally friendly behavior, researchers point to the effectiveness of non-monetary measures, namely “social incentives”. These include information, social norms, social influences, and the formation of networks or groups of individuals.

Based on a careful analysis of existing research, we have identified three types of social incentives – internal social influence, social connections and individual trust in institutions – that policy makers can rely on to promote positive behavior.

Number of studies identified in the period 1992-2020 regarding pro-environmental behavior and social incentives.
Authors, Provided by the author

Internal social influence

The first corresponds to intrinsic motivations (attitudes, perceptions, intrinsic motivations) that encourage individuals to adopt sustainable behaviors.

To be successful, environmental policies must focus on strengthening personal standards by promoting environmental awareness and a sense of commitment to ecological issues.

This implies, for example, better ecological education: through the development of communal or collective gardens in urban areas with residents and students; information campaigns on food waste in canteens and with the public with a zero waste goal, as in Roubaix; or increase students’ awareness of the need to reduce energy consumption as part of the “Cube.S” competition between schools, promoted by the Ministry of National Education.

Bringing climate information to light, such as the potential economic damage of climate change, also helps strengthen people’s beliefs and motivation to act to mitigate climate change.

Social connections

Social interactions are also a valuable source of information for individuals and a lever to encourage them to favor more virtuous behaviors. Frequent interactions with each other actually cause individuals to worry more about their society and thus assume a form of “community common sense”.

Several empirical studies have shown that the latter can directly influence individuals’ attitudes and force them to pay more attention to environmental issues.

Research has shown that agglomeration bonuses can encourage individuals to collaborate within a network to pursue an environmental goal. This equates to an additional bonus given to spatially connected individuals, with the aim of reaching a critical size within the framework of conservation programs. It is e.g. the case of the collective bonus in connection with payments for environmental services provided by farmers selected by water authorities in France.

It is also important to establish a legal framework that is favorable to environmental associations or groups, in order to encourage actors to interact in a larger network. In the latest report from the Haut conseil à la vie associative, certain recommendations aim to better take environmental issues into account among associations: the fact of “systematizing and making their consultation mandatory at different levels” or encouraging cooperation between them on environmental issues.

Trust in institutions

The trust of individual citizens in the government, institutions or leaders also helps to guide their behavior to generate desired political results.

It potentially reduces the risk of opportunistic attitudes, for free riding: Citizens will be more willing to sacrifice certain immediate personal benefits – for example, by contributing to public such as groundwater, land, air or forests – if their expectations of the long-term fruits of policies are positive.

It therefore seems important to make the institutions more inclusive, responsive and efficient at local and national level. In particular, by strengthening transparency and improving communication and interaction with peoples, in the image of participatory democracy and civic conventions.

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