Irish people want to live sustainable lives but don’t know how

Sign of the Times: We are far from lifestyle overhaul needed to avoid climate breakdown

The results of the 2019 Sign of the Times survey by Behaviour & Attitudes are published by The Irish Times today. The annual snapshot of Irish life combines quantitative and digital qualitative techniques with B&A published data on the economy, health, technology and shopping. The research was conducted in January and February 2019.

“Guilt and lip service” sums up current Irish attitudes to sustainability and climate change, according to the 2019 Behaviour & Attitudes Sign of the Times survey. “Concern yet inaction” could equally apply.

Digging a little deeper suggests a fundamental blockage exists: the perception among consumers that they can do little to address climate change and to achieve sustainability, such is the scale of threats to the planet. There is, however, growing awareness of the need to be sustainable, B&A’s survey finds.

Despair about plastic in the ocean or in the stomachs of whales stands out. Single-use plastic has become the environmental issue flashpoint, though climate change presents a greater threat to life. This is a consequence of the Blue Planet II TV series; its confirming of microplastics in the food chain; and China no longer being a cheap disposal service for plastic waste.


Awareness is becoming more discernible, “but behaviour change is at a modest (mainly middle class) level as yet”, B&A concludes.

It is manifest in small actions; buying loose fruit over pre-packed, using reusable coffee cups – “if I remember to bring it”. Paper straws are favoured over plastic – “with a Friday night cocktail”.

It doesn’t amount to the overhaul of lifestyle that many campaigners say is needed if the world is to avoid climate breakdown.

The findings suggest sustainability is more often than not a source of guilt; a sense we are not doing enough yet resulting action is modest; the latter may be due to a “we are not really sure how to pursue it meaningfully in our lives” position, or “we might not be quite up for the pain just yet” – even if it leads to healthier lives, less air pollution and carbon-neutral homes.

83% believe sustainability is a global issue needing to be addressed while 51% choose products based on whether they are sustainable

The B&A report identifies a belief among consumers that those bigger issues of global warming, and widespread pollution (notably plastic) “are beyond our agency to change”.

Indication of emerging change is, however, strong: 83 per cent believe sustainability is a global issue needing to be addressed while 51 per cent choose products based on whether they are sustainable – 56 per cent in the case of middle-class respondents. This suggests a “positive indication of shift in behaviour as well as underlying attitude change”.

Progress yes, but it does not add up to the action required to achieve a carbon-neutral world by 2050, a target climate scientists say is critical.

Widespread inaction prompted the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland to set up its behavioural economics unit. Using behavioural insights, it aims to deliver programmes tailored to make it easy and attractive for citizens and businesses to avail of clean energy. Benefits include lower energy bills, warmer homes and reduced emissions.

Its programme manager Karl Purcell says the B&A findings illustrate a typical problem in environmental psychology known as "the attention-action gap", the difference between what people say they would like or what they plan to do and what they actually do. There may be intention to , for example, save energy in the home, but the response does not match this. People act in a manner inconsistent with their values.

The “behaviour change wheel”, a method for characterising and designing behaviour change interventions, illustrates the multiple factors involved, he explains. In summary, to achieve change you have to look at capability, opportunity and motivation.

So in switching to electric vehicles, you need capability; to be able to make the distance to location desired (though range is becoming less of an issue) for instance, and a grant to make it affordable. Your motivation is accrued financial savings, or satisfaction from achieving zero emissions. As for opportunity, you won’t purchase if there are no vehicles on sale in the car dealer showroom.

Many credit unions will offer low-cost flexible finance to help homeowners install home-energy upgrades and enjoy a more comfortable home

Barriers, however, are usually day-to-day and largely habitual; actions without thinking. Every time you go to buy a straw you are faced with a choice of what type to buy, Purcell adds. What you acquire is a habit.

Consequently, the SEAI deploys targeted change campaigns rather than awareness campaigns. Working with credit unions, the SEAI has been evaluating how low-interest loans might be available for energy works in the home, such as insulation, solar power or retrofitting. A pilot scheme will be rolled out shortly.

Applying the rule: Capacity will stem from an SEAI grant covering 35 per cent of costs, combined with low-interest loans from credit unions. “A large number of credit unions will offer low-cost flexible finance to help homeowners install home energy upgrades and enjoy a more comfortable home.”

Motivation will be the comfort realised in the home. The opportunity will be provided by “the deliverers”, Retrofit Energy Ireland, offering a one-stop solution to make it easy and simple for the homeowner to upgrade their home. “The pilot will include a free home-energy survey completed by Retrofit Energy Ireland for credit union members interested in taking part.”

On the B&A findings, Purcell says they are definitely a positive. “We want figures to be moving in that direction.” Awareness and motivation are increasing but “relying on that alone would probably not be enough to deliver large-scale behavioural change”.

Individuals, informed by deep awareness that climate change is real, want to change. But B&A’s findings suggest many don’t know how to.