For an individual, 28 years is a timespan reaching far into the future. For our planet, 28 years constitutes less than a blink of an eye. And for the many countries across the world committed to reaching net zero by 2050, 28 years is the exact amount of time left to either make or break this commitment, writes MSc Behavioural Science student Kitty Thompson.
Net zero is a key theme of the COP27 conference in Egypt this year. Amongst the key priorities for deliberations will be ensuring that the net zero targets set are net zero targets met. This will be essential for policymaking across the globe. Therefore, consideration of time preferences and how to leverage them is absolutely essential.
Life in 2050 is hard to imagine…
For a target on this scale to be enacted by any government, it requires the support of two key actors: the public and politicians. Considering each of these actors in turn, this blog will outline the behavioural challenges relating to a net zero target, and a corresponding behavioural science solution.
Despite the importance of reaching net zero for individuals and society at large, life in the year 2050 is hard to imagine or care about. This is borne out in the theory of hyperbolic discounting, which states that people’s preferences are time-inconsistent and so, there is a tendency for people to choose a smaller-sooner reward over a larger-later reward when the trade occurs closer to the present day (Ainslie, 1975).
Although people care about net zero in principle, present decisions may result in actions and beliefs not quite adding up. The idea that decisions in the present are special, relative to future ones, is referred to in behavioural science as “quasi-hyperbolic discounting” (Laibson, 1997).
But, net zero by 2050 cannot wait until 2049 for action.
Communicating the short-term opportunities and avoiding political vanity projects
Although net zero is inherently intertemporal in nature, it requires action being taken now to achieve it. There are impacts that net zero will have on present decision making that will help to achieve net zero, such as whether to buy an electrical vehicle or to install a heat pump.
The benefits are also represented in the jobs created by green technology-led reindustrialisation and achieving energy independence via renewables. Net zero should be communicated to the public in relation to the short-term opportunities it creates, not just as an abstract future goal.
There is also a clear need to communicate to the public that, if left unchecked, the impacts of climate change will become the present-day problems for people in the future. In some countries this is already becoming a reality, with the flooding in Pakistan and the heatwave in India this summer being two prime examples.
Politicians are susceptible to bias towards the present too. This is because political point scoring and cycles, at least in democracies, tend to operate under a short time horizon i.e. the next election. In the context of net zero, this could see politicians setting an ambitious net zero target to gain the immediate credit for doing so rather than to actually achieve the target itself.
However, in many countries, the politicians setting the target will likely not be in the same position of power decades later when the target is supposed to be reached. This means there is no single person, or government, that can be held responsible for whether or not a net zero target is actually met.
The risk is that net zero targets appear to be, or worse still actually are, the vanity project of self-serving, short-termist politicians, who may not have any interest in actually meeting the target.
Connecting future social goals
The present biases of both the public and politicians can be exploited by bad faith actors to stoke anti-net zero sentiment. They can do so, for example, by claiming that politicians are playing political games by making a promise of net zero that they may not keep at the expense of tackling immediate issues facing society.
The introduction of clear commitment devices will enable politicians to be held accountable in the short-term to the promises they have made relating to net zero. One example of how to achieve this could be the setting of frequent, legally binding interim net zero targets on the route to net zero, like the UK does via its carbon budgets.
The global community is gathering in Sharm el-Sheikh for COP27 to discuss, among other things, the need to collectively achieve net zero emissions. When doing so, politicians must remember that setting a net zero target is not an end in itself; it requires work to achieve it. And, if they are to bring their general population with them on the journey towards a net zero future, they would be wise to connect societal future goals with individual short-term needs.
- The views expressed in this post are of the author and not the Department of Psychological and Behavioural Science, nor LSE.
- Image sourced via Canva.