The COVID-19 pandemic has forced people to change the way they live and, in the process, cracked open the door to a rare reset opportunity. Behavioral scientists refer to this phenomenon as the “fresh start effect,” where disruptive events act as temporal landmarks, separating past behaviors (and selves) from new, often aspirational ones.

As we tackle another global emergency — the climate crisis — and imagine a world that is more sustainable and more equitable, we have a fleeting window of opportunity to learn from mistakes made during the pandemic. Specifically, we’ve learned with piercing clarity from the COVID-19 crisis the cost of undervaluing the role of human behavior in tackling global emergencies. Indeed, when the outgoing director of the United States’ National Institutes of Health (NIH) was recently asked what the NIH could have done differently in their fight against COVID, he said: Maybe we underinvested in behavioral research.” We should not make the same mistake in the climate crisis.

As we’ve all witnessed, COVID-19 doesn’t exist in a vacuum; the varying responses of individuals, communities and nations to the pandemic have all played a role in the spread of the virus. However, attention has been too narrowly focused on changing the behavior of individuals, rather than the larger context that often determines how individuals behave. People do not live in isolated bubbles of personal choices. Our world is increasingly interconnected and interdependent, and we need to apply behavioral science in ways that respond to that reality.

In addition to continuing to pressure governments and corporations to take crucial climate actions, we must invest in and focus on human behavior in newer and bolder ways. If we don’t, the failure to consider what drives human behavior, and how historical and structural barriers and inequities impact that behavior, will sabotage our fight to protect the planet. One study estimates that household behaviors are responsible for 72% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Behavior change can mean “nudging” these households to modify diets, reduce flights and use energy more efficiently. But it should not stop at individual actions. For example, the food industry can invest in plant-based meat alternatives, employers can institute flight reduction policies, and policymakers and utilities can invest in behaviorally informed billing practices that have been shown to help people decrease their energy use.

That is the goal of a new WRI initiative, The Living Lab for Equitable Climate Action: to show how applying a broader behavioral lens to the climate crisis offers novel solutions. Some of our research begins with a focus on the individual, but our aim is always broader — to push for neighborhoods, workplaces, industry practices and policies that make it easier for people to live healthier, cleaner and more equitable lives.

Here are three things we’ve learned so far:

1. “Reset” Events Can Dramatically Transform Behaviors — and Perceptions

If global air travel in 2018 were a country, it would have been the sixth-largest emitter of carbon dioxide in the world — and those emissions were climbing.  

Then COVID-19 drastically transformed travel behavior globally. In 2020, global air travel demand was almost 66% lower than in 2019. As of July 2020, decreased flights contributed 13% of the total decrease in global carbon emissions since the pandemic began.

At WRI alone, moving to virtual meetings in 2020 resulted in 2,200 fewer flights in 10 months — equivalent to over 3,000 metric tons of CO2, or the additional carbon sequestered by 4,000 acres of forests* in a year. Flight reductions also resulted in at least $2.6 million in avoided ticket expenses and 11,000 hours in avoided flight time.

WRI is just one global non-profit, and its savings are dwarfed by larger institutions and corporations. For example, Amazon and Google saved $1 billion each in 2020 travel costs; imagine the amount of carbon dioxide emissions that were also avoided.

Travel restrictions may have changed behavior, but it was not a given that perspectives and work norms would change in parallel. In behavioral science it’s unusual to see significant changes in people’s perspectives, especially over a short amount of time. However, the COVID-19 crisis is a once-in-a-generation event that created seismic shifts in how we work and travel.

For example, in surveys administered to WRI staff in July 2020 across six global offices (China, India, Brazil, Indonesia, Europe and the United States), over 60% of respondents reported that replacing air travel with virtual alternatives was more feasible and effective than they thought. In addition, staff reported dramatic shifts on how they viewed reducing business travel in a number of ways, as this graphic illustrates. 

Changes in WRI staff perceptions of reducing business air travel

Notes: The pre-COVID-19 survey took place in August 2019 and follow-up survey in June 2020. The follow up survey is referred to below as the “post-survey.”

And perceptions matter. Staff who thought travel reductions would be approved of by peers and supervisors in the future were significantly more likely to make a commitment to reduce travel after COVID-19 restrictions ease.

But behavioral science tells us that people are profoundly influenced by their situations. It’s likely that as the situation changes, and COVID-19 restrictions ease, many people will revert to their previous rhythms of travel. Organizations will need policies and incentives in place to intentionally support reductions and leverage people’s newfound desire to reduce business travel. WRI is working with partner organizations to develop travel reduction policies and programs to do just that.

2. Social Comparisons, Combined with Actionable Tips, Can Shift Behavior

From an equity and economic development perspective, it’s critical for more households — especially in emerging economies like India — to become electrified and share the advantages that electricity provides with more people. However, electricity use in India is a major contributor to rising greenhouse gas emissions and other externalities (like air pollution) because of the Indian grid's dependence on fossil fuels. To fight this, more must be done to shift to cleaner energy sources and improve energy efficiency.

VidyutRakshaka, a joint project between Technology Informatics and Design Endeavor (TIDE) and WRI India, produced "behaviorally designed" household energy reports that have been found to incentivize more sustainable energy use. The reports compared a home’s energy use to that of neighboring households — because insights from behavioral science tell us that our behavior is informed by what others do. It also included specific, actionable recommendations to help bring down energy use and costs, such as switching off fans when you leave the room or investing in LED bulbs. Social scientists have found that because people procrastinate on tasks that seem complicated or unclear, simplifying the steps can increase positive behaviors.

The project’s findings suggest that receiving these behaviorally informed energy reports decreased energy use by an average of 7%. This may not seem like a lot, but individual actions can add up quickly when expanded to entire populations. If the whole city of Bangalore received these reports, 604 million kilowatts of energy a year would be avoided and households would save almost $60 million per year.

Similar results have been found with energy audits elsewhere, including in the U.S. and the United Kingdom. Imagine if presenting energy bills this way was the default for all major utility companies. That would be a structural change built off an understanding of human psychology with the potential for massive and lasting impact.

3. Small Changes to People’s Environment Can Change Behavior

In the case of COVID-19 travel restrictions, an external event changed behavior en masse. But we can also make proactive adjustments to our situations to encourage pro-environmental behaviors. For example, shifting our eating habits toward less meat will be critical to meeting the climate crisis (see graphic below.)

Emissions and Cost of Different Types of Protein

A 2016 study by the London School of Economics and advised by WRI’s Food Team found that if you're a meat eater, you are 56% less likely to order a plant-rich dish if it's contained within a "vegetarian" box. However, insights from behavioral science tell us that small, seemingly insignificant changes to our environment (like adding an adjective to a menu item) can change our behavior. For example, previous WRI research has shown that changing menu language to describe vegetarian dishes in more indulgent terms (think “hearty,” “slow-roasted” or “creamy”) led to a significant increase in diners picking vegetarian meals.

Driving Consumer Ordering of Plant-based Dishes in Restaurants

Simply, "vegetarian" can evoke some negative perceptions, causing customers to avoid ordering certain dishes. Many diners say they are concerned about a perceived lack of protein, or that a vegetarian diet may be nutritionally unbalanced. And there are negative stereotypes that characterize people who identify as vegetarian as weak, which could dissuade omnivores from changing their habits.

Redesigning menus can create a different framing: The lentil soup isn’t a “vegetarian” choice, it’s a delicious “slow-roasted and creamy” choice, but one that happens to also support plant-based foods and moves us toward a more sustainable diet and planet.

Individual actions are a good first step, but they are not enough. Using behavioral insights like these, WRI’s Food team has launched the Cool Food initiative which is committed to helping businesses and organizations cut the climate impact of the food they serve, making it easier for individuals to make climate-friendly choices. The initiative, in collaboration with its partners, accounts for more than 1.2 billion meals a year.

Moving from Individual Interventions to Equity-Driven, Behaviorally Informed Policy

Many people want to change their behavior in ways that are good for themselves, their communities and the planet. But as anyone who has ever made a New Year’s resolution knows, just wanting to change is rarely enough.

Instead, we need to create effective choice architecture that makes sustainable and equitable changes easier for everyone. Applied behavioral science looks at the ways in which daily choices — such as eating less meat, taking fewer flights, or using less energy at home — can be effectively encouraged at scale through policy initiatives.

Behavioral policy design includes, but also looks beyond, traditional “nudges” (or small, often temporary changes in our environment) to explore ways to encourage behaviors on a population level through behaviorally informed policy choices. We must think bigger because we are not going to nudge our way out of the climate crisis.

Introduction to the Living Lab

To apply behavioral science to climate challenges around the world, WRI has recently launched a new initiative, the Living Lab for Equitable Climate Action, which will identify and quantify the most impactful population-level behavior changes starting in the project’s three pilot countries (Mexico, India and the U.S.) within the areas of transport, energy and food.

The Living Lab’s key principles:

●      Behavioral Research for Policy Design: Moving from a traditional emphasis on small nudges focused on individual behavior to behaviorally informed policy design focused on influencing behavior on a population scale.

●      Equity and Social Justice: In addition to assessing climate impacts, examining social impacts like health, income, equity and the persistent effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. The goal is to support the transition toward a more sustainable and equitable society.

●      Alliances: Intentionally building multi-stakeholder partnerships with local and international academic/research institutions, government agencies, civil society groups and industry to align stakeholder incentives and perspectives.

●      Participatory Design: A focus on participatory research and behavioral design that engages and values local stakeholders and researchers in each country to define behavioral challenges and work together to design solutions.

Critically, changing the way we live can also move us toward a more equitable world — but only if changes are made intentionally.

Decreasing business travel can be a win for people and the planet, but should be done in ways that provide new career opportunities for aviation workers. Further, reducing business travel can build more equitable workplaces. Studies indicate that increased remote work allows for diversity in hiring. Access to energy efficient products, upgrades and innovations should be accessible to everyone, not only those with the money or information to seek it out. Similarly, shifting toward plant-based foods should be an easy, affordable option for everyone, which means working to get fresh, healthy produce to markets in every neighborhood.

Equitable climate action also requires acknowledging that high-income countries and communities must do more. Around 80% of the planet has never set foot on a plane — so addressing aviation emissions is the responsibility of the 1% (led by the U.S.) that make up 50% of these emissions. Increasing energy efficiency in growing, emerging economies like India is critical, but we also must recognize that significant portions of the population still lack — and need — access to electricity. And while much of the global north can shift away from meat, it’s important to recognize that many people around the world need access to more protein, including meat. 

As the last two years have shown us, if we try to tackle existential threats to humanity without tackling human behavior — in all its fascinating and maddening diversity — we will come up short in grievous ways. But we’ve also learned that dramatically changing human behavior on a planetary scale is possible. Let’s use these hard-won lessons to build a more sustainable and more equitable world.  



* This calculation is specifically about the United States.