How can research help: what is the gap in understanding that should be addressed most urgently?

In the last two decades, the debate around addressing climate change has rightly focused on identifying – and supporting – the most suitable technologies to decarbonise our economies. Consequently, significant progress has been achieved in the decarbonisation of the power sector. However, as the priority is now to decarbonise hard-to-abate sectors such as power and heat, key questions around consumer behaviour are coming to the fore.

First and foremost, while consumers and citizens are increasingly conscious of the importance of addressing climate change and environmental degradation, there is not yet sufficient clarity on what behaviours have the most significant impact on our planet.
Furthermore, it is yet to be seen what policies will be most appropriate to drive behavioural changes. While mandating is certainly a quick and effective way of reaching the targets, top-down approaches are often likely to provoke adverse reactions within the public opinion. On the other hand, providing economic incentives can raise questions about who has to pay for the energy transition.

Hence, research will have an increasingly important role in helping us understanding consumer behaviour, with a focus on achieving socio-economic transformations that are at the same time equitable and sustainable. The energy transition needs to be a collective journey, involving as many stakeholders as possible and, for the transition to be successful, it is essential that consumers and citizens develop a sense of ownership and a genuine commitment. To foster involvement, public debate will therefore be essential.
Identifying the most suitable paths to decarbonise the economy will require an inter-disciplinary approach, involving – among the others – policymakers, businesses, energy practitioners and consumers, but also scholars of various disciplines, including consumer psychologists and behavioural economists.

Research questions around consumer behaviour are not only interesting for policymakers, though. Corporates and investors that are eager to play a role in the decarbonisation of our economies are eager than ever to understand what kinds of consumer behaviour are set to prevail.

For example, what will be the key factors in persuading consumers to buy electric boilers? And, when it comes to electric vehicles, what charging behaviours are set to prevail? An imperfect understanding of future trends heightens the risk of investing in stranded assets. Thus, there are few doubts that social scientists will have, therefore, a big role to play in the next wave of decarbonisation.

Citizen and consumer participation is one of many topics covered in the British Institute of Energy Economics (BIEE) Energy for a Net Zero Society conference sponsored by Cornwall Insight on 13-14 September.

Ahead of the British Institute of Energy Economics (BIEE) conference, Anna Moss, answers this question: What should the government’s key message be at COP26 to help consumers understand a net zero future?

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