6th October 2017
Government evaluation of a scheme developed to reduce carbon emissions was debated at the National Assembly for Wales on Wednesday 4th October 2017.
The proposal draws on the work of Martin Burgess, a WISERD researcher at the Behavioural Insights Research Centre located in the Department of Geography and Earth Sciences at Aberystwyth University.
Sponsored by a cross party group of Assembly Members, the motion calls on Welsh Government to commission a feasibility study into the introduction of Personal Carbon Accounts in Wales. Based on a concept developed in the mid-1990s, Personal Carbon Accounts operate like ordinary bank current accounts with a debit card.
Each person has an account into which free carbon credits are paid each month. These are spent when buying fuel for vehicles and the home – petrol, diesel, gas, electricity or fuel oil. Heavy consumers can buy more credits if they run out, while low users are able to trade unspent credits in for real cash.
The aim of the scheme is to focus people’s awareness of their carbon consumption, and gradually persuade people to reduce their consumption of fossil fuels by voluntarily changing their behaviours.
The motion to the National Assembly calls for the establishment of an evaluation into the practicalities of running a pilot operation in a region of Wales, examining in detail how the scheme would work on a day to day basis.
Martin Burgess has undertaken a detailed study of the original proposals which came to prominence in 2006 when David Miliband was Environment Secretary, only to be dropped in 2008 on the grounds of cost and social acceptability.
The new approach uses applied behaviour change theory to reduce consumption, and draws on understandings gained from the successful campaign to reduce the use of plastic shopping bags from supermarkets.
Martin Burgess said: “There are huge variations in fuel consumption between households of similar size and income living in similar homes. Personal Carbon Accounts are designed to get people to think again about how they consume fuel and create carbon pollution. Initially the scheme is about raising awareness and making small reductions, though there would be real economic benefits for people in reducing how much fuel they use.
“In the longer-term, it would influence people’s larger decisions, such as choice of car or whether to invest in better house insulation, encouraging them to take the option that would see them consume fewer carbon credits and save money.
“It is also about changing what is regarded as socially acceptable behaviour and using people’s innate human need to conform to these different social standards. For example, a few years ago shoppers carrying bags into supermarkets were often regarded as miserly or odd in some way: it is now seen as perfectly normal. Now it is those who buy multiple bags at the till who are regarded as odd or not quite acceptable. Most people conform to the new normal.
“The tiny charge has changed the social norm completely by reframing the usage in people’s minds. It is this mental mechanism that Personal Carbon Accounts seek to harness.
“The intention is not to use Personal Carbon Accounts to punish citizens for high usage but simply to reframe carbon usage in a similar way and use people’s internal budgeting and conforming functions, with support from other policies, to drive carbon usage down over time.”
Professor Mark Whitehead from the Department of Geography and Earth Sciences said: “We are delighted with the way this research has developed and particularly the way modern understandings of behaviour change have been used to revitalise a pre-existing concept.”
The motion that calls on the Welsh Government to commission further research into the feasibility of a Personal Carbon Accounts pilot scheme in Wales is backed by Simon Thomas AM, Adam Price AM, David Melding AM and Mike Hedges AM.
Further details about the National Assembly for Wales Plenary Session on Wednesday 4th October 2017 can be viewed online here.
Image courtesy of Arthur Dafis, Aberystwyth University