A better kind of disposable coffee cup won’t solve climate change

Rapid action to improve resource efficiency is essential for achieving climate mitigation goals. Likely to reshape everyday life in unexpected ways, new products, policies and business models will need to consider the public acceptability of resource efficiency strategies, as well as technical emissions reductions potential. In our paper, using consumption-based emissions modelling and deliberative public workshops, we find significant public support for a range of resource efficiency strategies that combined could reduce the UK’s carbon footprint. Failing to engage the public in the policy making process will overestimate potential emissions savings. By Kate Scott, Catherine Cherry, John Barrett and Nick Pidgeon
A better kind of disposable coffee cup won’t solve climate change

Amongst both policy makers and the public, there is often a misconception that efforts to tackle climate change are limited to strategies that directly conserve energy use only by increasing the efficiency of our homes, cars or products. But this view fails to account for the greenhouse gases that are emitted to produce the clothes we wear, the food we eat, the computers we use and the bricks and mortar that we live in. Strategies that aim to reduce demand for materials and products will also be essential to limiting rising global temperatures.

As George Monbiot recently wrote in the Guardian “We won’t save the Earth with a better kind of disposable coffee cup”. Despite raising awareness surrounding issues of waste and resource use, incremental consumer change, focused around a limited number of low impact products, such as adopting non-disposable coffee cups and plastic stirrers, will only lead to small emissions savings. Instead we need to challenge the wider system in which we operate and shift away from the status quo towards a more resource efficient, low carbon society.

Given the scale of the necessary changes and the everyday nature of such products and materials, public acceptance will play a key role in giving policy makers a social license to act. Our article (https://go.nature.com/2y7nMlJ) explores this idea, unusually bringing together two distinct areas of research (quantitative modelling of the impact of resource efficiency strategies, with qualitative research into existing public perceptions surrounding those strategies) together to identify strategies where high potential impact coincides with higher levels of public acceptability.

To do this, we conducted workshops with a diverse group of people from Cardiff and Bristol to explore a range of alternative visions for a low material future. These visions were not restricted to designing more sustainable products (e.g., purchasing modular products, or products with reduced or biodegradable packaging). They also included ideas for sharing products (e.g. rarely used tools/appliances) within communities, leasing products (e.g. larger appliances like washing machines) instead of owning them, and getting products (e.g. our mobiles and other electronic devices) repaired rather than replacing them.

By talking to people about how their everyday lives might change under these different futures, we can gain a better understanding of what kind of changes people want to see, as well as explore the reasons that lead to wider rejection of specific strategies. Overall, we found people were in support of a shift towards resource efficiency, even where it would have implications for their personal lives and shopping habits. However, such backing does not necessarily translate into support for specific strategies.

With two of us coming from a more quantitative modelling background we quickly realised by not engaging with the public there was a real risk in overestimating the success of potential strategies. While in academia we find leasing and sharing schemes a very attractive prospect, in reality people associated it with a monthly debt - ‘what if I lose my job […] I've got to give my washing machine back. I've got to give all this stuff back […] because I can't afford to rent anymore’ (Alfie). Public engagement is therefore essential in understanding how to upscale low material behaviours followed up with government policies to support citizens under vastly different business models.

We identified many other factors (e.g., cost and convenience, the distribution of responsibility, the impacts on community cohesion, and safety and hygiene) that affected approval of resource efficiency schemes. Simply telling everyone to reduce their consumption is therefore unlikely to yield results and government and businesses will also need to play their part.

Overall, our research demonstrates that resource efficiency deserves much greater consideration in climate policy and could play a significant role in helping the UK meet its legally binding carbon budgets. While public acceptability does not equate directly with adoption, we do know that it is a critical component of decision making and important in successful policy implementation. If we do not bring people into the policy process we are at risk of underestimating the scale of emissions savings we can achieve. 

The article in Nature Climate Change is here: https://go.nature.com/2y7nMlJ

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