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Interview: Working together on sustainability

The energy transition does not just call for technological or economic changes, but also for changes in behaviour. What convinces people to make environmentally friendly choices?

By Maaike Borst, Dagblad van het Noorden

Sometimes we as humans feel very small. How can we, as individuals, change things in this world? Does it really make a difference to shower for a minute less, skip meat for a day, or use public transport instead of your car? Real change is the responsibility of world leaders, of the CEOs of multinationals, of the owners of oil companies. Right?

Not according to the latest climate report of the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change). This report states that citizens can, together, decrease international carbon emissions by between 40 and 70 percent by changing their behaviour. That seems a lot, but it is not surprising when you imagine that we all consume the products produced by those multinationals, that we use gas to heat our homes, that oil is used to transport us or our goods.

If we all change together, our behaviour will definitely make a difference.


People who look like us

Environmental psychologist Linda Steg from the University of Groningen was one of the co-authors of this IPCC report. Warning about climate change is one thing, but offering perspective and showing people what they can do themselves is just as important, she says. Fear of disaster scenarios can be crippling, especially when you have no idea what you can do to help.

‘You cannot expect consumers to accept full responsibility for this. The choices we make depend on the choices that companies, the industry, and governments make. Because they determine which options are available and how attractive these options are. Consumers need support. Everyone is convinced by now that we need to replace fossil fuels. But how can we do this? Not everyone can afford a heat pump or an electric car.’

Governments, companies, and community associations should also take action, have a vision, and make plans for the future. At the same time, it is important that we show each other that things can be done differently. ‘It is much more likely that our behaviour is influenced by people who look like us.’

Linda Steg
Linda Steg

Distorted image

Our image of others is important in our choices, but that image is not always correct. Research shows that we usually think that others are less motivated to make environmentally friendly choices than we are ourselves. The focus on dissenting opinions in the (social) media enhances this negative image. ‘It is not correct’, says Steg. ‘Most people do think it is important.’

But because of this distorted image, we can feel as if our own actions are not that useful. If everyone else continues to have barbecues and go on holiday by plane, how can your shorter showers make any difference?

Apart from the fact that our ideas about others are often wrong, they are also based on a negative image of sustainable behaviour. ‘As if we only have to make sacrifices. Use our cars less, eat less meat. The focus should be more on the advantages. A neighbourhood with fewer cars offers more space for children to play. You can complain about that empty spot on your plate or about meat substitutes tasting like cardboard, but learning how to prepare a delicious vegetarian meal can also enrich your life. The opportunities of this transition are being underestimated.’

Another misconception is the idea that people mainly save energy if it saves them money. ‘Of course, money does play a part’, says Steg. ‘But it is definitely not just money or self-interest. It can feel good to do something for your environment, for the future, for others. There can also be a social motive: for example, doing something together with your community to stimulate sustainability, which gives you an opportunity to get to know other people.’

Jacob Dijkstra
Jacob Dijkstra

How to convince people

It is this social aspect that can be important to convince people to participate in sustainable initiatives. That is what sociologist Jacob Dijkstra, who conducts research into local energy cooperations for the UG, has concluded. Within these cooperations, initiators often struggle with the question of how to make the rest of the community just as enthusiastic as they are.

‘The initiators often think that the best way to convince others is with financial advantages. So, at their information meetings they show six slides about how quickly their investments can be earned back. But this excludes citizens who are already active in their community, who think it is important to do something for their social environment. If you can show them that local energy initiatives are also good for the local economy and for social cohesion, you can reach people who are already working on this.’

Initiators of local energy cooperations often do not have access to the community, observes Dijkstra. ‘They are usually the exceptions in the community: highly motivated, highly educated, with lots of time on their hands, or newcomers.’

Their network is not as well rooted in the local community, while they sometimes ask people for big, risky investments by joining their cooperation. This can be an obstacle, because we tend to follow people who look like us. As a result, the general idea that sustainable behaviour is mainly reserved for rich Tesla drivers and the left-wing elite is also enhanced at a local level.

Waiting to see which way the wind blows

‘We should not expect too much from the domino effect’, says Dijkstra. A serious change in behaviour requires more than just one person telling you that something is a good idea. ‘This works when you can try something for a while and without risk, but not when something requires a big investment. In those cases, people tend to wait to see which way the wind blows. They want to know who is involved before they dare to take the step. And when everyone behaves that way, there is a risk that it will never happen.’

There are 676 local energy cooperations in the Netherlands. In addition, especially now that we can no longer rely on Russian gas and the energy prices keep rising, more and more people have started to insulate their homes and generate energy independently, stimulated by the government. The question is what effect all of the measures from above will have on local initiatives. Will they still be useful?

‘I have a lot of respect for initiators of these kinds of initiatives’, says Dijkstra. ‘The subject matter is very complex and they dedicate a lot of time to it. While others watch the Champions League on Wednesdays, they meet in work groups. I think that local cooperations can be important for social cohesion and support.’


Change is inevitable

In the end, we all have to do it together. The joint behaviour of all those citizens together determines how things will develop, not just locally, but also globally. We make the system, we too are part of all those companies, we determine who our world leaders are. Our choices make a difference, not just in what we consume, but also in what political actions we take and who we vote for.

Whether we want to prevent climate change or not, our behaviour is going to have to change anyway, says Linda Steg. ‘We can wish for everything to stay the same, but even if we don’t do anything at all, we will still have to change our behaviour. Climate change will cause more heat waves, more dry spells, even floods. We are going to have to adapt to this.’

  • Environmental psychologist Linda steg is one of the co-authors of this IPCC report. Expertise in environmental psychology; understanding environmental behaviour including energy use and car use; acceptability and effectiveness of environmental policy; sustainable energy transition; cllimate change; values; intrinsic motivation
  • Sociologist Jacob Dijkstra's research includes local energy cooperations

Last modified:23 November 2022 1.59 p.m.
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