While most emphasis in climate negotiations is rightly placed upon countries and corporations, it is also true that society has a role to play in meeting climate goals through lifestyle changes. RethinkAction is attempting to understand and model the drivers of behavioural change in order to better represent sustainable futures.


The achievement of the Paris Agreement target to reduce global warming to well below 2 degrees relies on countries working together to commit to reducing greenhouse gas emissions and to ensure the provison of carbon sinks. The Sixth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) recently recognised the crucial role consumption and demand side decisions can play in climate action. To meet the 2 (or 1.5) degree target lifestyle changes are needed. 

The RethinkAction approach

The only way to achieve this, is to foreground the role of society. The RethinkAction project places people at the very centre of the project. We believe that you cannot model society without speaking to society. This is one of the reasons that we place stakeholder engagement at the core of our approach. Through co-created, sustained and inclusive participation we can find out more about how people interact with the environment, including if and how their lifestyles can change. 

Types of behavioural change

Forms of behavioural change related to mitigation include consumer action, adoption of low carbon technology, support for low carbon infrastructure, political action, participation in policy development and engaging in conversations about climate change and normalising low-carbon lifestyles. All of these are important and mutually reinforcing, but the most relevant from a modelling perspective is consumption change. 

Avoid, shift, improve

It is possible to categorise these forms of consumption behavioural change into three types – Avoid, Shift, Improve. Avoiding is not undertaking a particular action which places a demand on a resource. Shifting refers to changing the mode in which needs are met. Improving involves using a more efficient way of meeting the need. For example, if we consider the realm of transport, avoiding could mean not flying for a holiday. A shift could be taking the train instead of driving. Improving could be using an electric car. All things being equal, the required motivation to change behaviour decreases as we move from avoid, to shift to improve. Avoiding might need a change in values. Shifting probably requires a change in routines. Improving on the other hand can mean just adopting innovations. Nonetheless, the above examples of shifting and improving require support from administrators and the private sector. It might be that significant levels of institutional support is necessary; people can only take public transport if it is convenient and affordable and electric cars are only viable with subsidies and charging points. But what about encouraging decisions to avoid behaviour?

But how do people make consumption choices?

Until now, most attempts to influence behavour tend to be informed by homo economicus, that is the idea that people make decisions based on narrow self-interest – essentially a cost benefit analysis. It follows that efforts to change behaviour are mainly focused on changing these relative costs. So taxes are the natural response to attempt to make people change their consumption, mirroring the dependence give to carbon pricing at the country level which until now has failed to prevent the level of carbon emissions rising unsustainably. Of course, taxes can play an important role in influencing behaviour. But people are not automatons who respond to stimulus in a uniform and predictable manner. That is a potentially harmful simplification. In reality, peoples’ decisions are comprised of their values, attitudes and they can be influenced by their social networks and even the examples of leaders. 

According to the IPCC, “social norms, culture, and individual choices, interact with infrastructure and other structural changes over time”. 

The Theory of Planned Behaviour (Ajzen, 1991)

The Theory of Planned Behaviour (Ajzen, 1991)

The potential of dietary change

For example, it is now established that a change in diet could have a massive impact on land and water use and households’ carbon footprint. A diet had been conceptualised by the Lancet Commission which adheres to planetary boundaries, while also respecting cultural dietary preferences and norms. The diet involves reductions in meat intake, to be replaced by plant based foods. But how can this shift occur? Well, in some ways it already is happening. In large areas of the Global North, meat free diets are becoming more widespread. This is happening through a combination of factors and most of them relate to lifestyle choice. Firstly depending on the foodstuff, vegetarian or vegan options can be significantly cheaper than animal-based products. Secondly, there is the health aspect, with meat (over) consumption leading to increased cancer and heart disease risk. Thirdly, there is the environmental perspective. People are increasingly knowledgeable about, and persuaded by limiting their impacts on the planet. These mutually reinforcing motives can be driven by discourses within social networks, and are increasingly conditioned by what celebrities say and do. This is true of both experts such as David Attenborough and Greta Thunberg, but also influencers who may be forming or riding the zeitgeist.  


If lifestyle changes reach a critical mass, it is possible they can result in structural change; pervasive changes which can alter the development trajectory we take. In this way the accumulation of individual decisions a realm of sectors such as diet, transport and housing can condition the future path we tread. In general terms if we are only able to take improve actions and we rely on technical fixes, it is likely that we will not deviate so much from business as usual, and we may follow a path of Green Growth. If we are able to make some shifts in our behaviour it becomes more possible to plot the course of a Green Deal. If we reprioritise our goals with respect to development and avoid certain behaviour, then a Post Growth future in which wellbeing and ecological limits are respected becomes feasible. RethinkAction will model some of these avoiding, shifting and improving lifestyle changes and test hpw they might lead to structural changes and contribute to sustainable futures. 

Limits to lifestyle change

It should be noted that there are limits to behavioural change, be it at the individual, household, community or societal level. It is absolutely vital that administrators and the private sector facilitate such lifestyle change through providing support in the form of infrastructure and choice. We cannot buy vegan food if it is not grown, sold and marketed. But at the same time, it is important to recognise the role that states and corporations have in agreeing to and achieving climate change goals in relation to mitigation, adaptation and loss and damage. 


People do have agency and their choices do affect the pathways which we take. The RethinkAction Project will model these lifestyle changes, and therefore show how structural change could occur. Perhaps more importantly, the decision making platform developed through the project will allow end users to experiment and see how their decisions including avoiding, shifting or improving behaviour can also address wellbeing and crucially stay within planetary boundaries. However, individual behavioural change is insufficient for climate change mitigation unless embedded in structural and cultural change.