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Society and a low-carbon future: individual behaviour change or new social values and priorities?

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  22 April 2013

Janette Webb*
Affiliation:
School of Social and Political Science, University of Edinburgh, Chrystal Macmillan Building, 15a George Square, Edinburgh EH8 9LD, UK

Abstract

Although Scottish and UK governments have ambitious targets for climate change mitigation, and there is increased understanding of the risks to future prosperity of fossil fuel energy dependence, limited practical progress has been made by the advanced economies in reducing carbon emissions, especially when embedded emissions in imported consumer goods are taken into account. Significant contributory factors are the social and cultural values, beliefs and practices, which result in risks of climate change being regarded as secondary to short-term pressures for economic growth and increased consumer spending. The result is that climate change and transition to a low-carbon society become ‘back of the mind’ issues. Current policy designed to lower carbon emissions from household consumption treats society as a series of individuals, each responding rationally to market incentives to maximise short-term personal gain. ‘Greener choices’ are incentivised and encouraged by social marketing, but, at best, this approach will achieve only very gradual change. An alternative model treats society as comprising historically evolving, dynamic social systems and cultures that are capable of dealing with transformational change, when there is a shared understanding of the reasons for acting. From this perspective, society can implement step changes in behaviour through collaborative action in the interests of the longer-term common good. Political momentum can be gathered for new legislative and/or taxation measures, as for example in the case of the strong programme for tobacco control legislation in Scotland and the UK. By focusing on social and technical infrastructures, the built environment, and the regeneration of local economies, rather than on individual behaviours, government investment can have far greater impact. A distinctively Scottish narrative for a low-carbon society can create momentum for transition through shared understanding of the risks of climate change, and its meanings for social life, cultures, economic relationships and values.

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Articles
Copyright
Copyright © The Royal Society of Edinburgh 2012 

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