Two reports about climate change in the Netherlands came out last week. One focused on behaviour change, the other on technological change.

The report from the PBL (Planbureau voor de Leefomgeving), or Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency as it’s known in English, carefully mapped out 30 different scenarios for how the Netherlands can become climate neutral by the year 2050 through scaling up technological solutions.

The PBL report, “Pathway exploration climate neutral 2050: Pathways to a climate neutral society for the Netherlands in 2050”, focused on achieving climate neutral status for the Netherlands through technological changes to the electricity and heat supply, as well as the production and use of fuel and raw materials.

Taking technology adoption for granted

Technological advances being used on a wide scale is also treated as a given, but if new or developing tech fails to appeal to people, they probably won’t adopt it and may actually end up protesting, which will ultimately inhibit implementation.

Assuming that population and economic growth remain moderate and that consumer behaviour remains roughly the same, “it is still very uncertain whether climate neutrality can be achieved in 2050 [through technology alone].”

The report summary acknowledges that “the behavior of consumers, businesses and governments”, among others, also “play an important role” in a “transition to climate neutrality.” However, the report states that behaviour change is not addressed in detail in the study, saying that their findings “can provide a starting point for follow-up studies that address these issues.”

Even though it is only mentioned in passing, the necessity of behaviour change is still evident in the report: “Lifestyle changes that reduce energy and resource consumption to levels lower than those assumed in this study could significantly contribute to a successful transition.”

A political choice

In an interview about the report with Dutch newspaper NRC, PBL director Marko Hekkert also spoke about the importance of behaviour change. “It is a political choice [to ask Dutch people to change their behavior], but it would make the transition a lot cheaper.”

Another report which came out in late April, by comparison, focused directly on the role of pro-environmental behaviour change. The SCP (Sociaal en Cultureel Planbureau), known as the Netherlands Institute for Social Research in English, explored Dutch people’s current pro-environmental attitudes and behaviours, and illustrated why they matter so much to a climate neutrality strategy.

Environmental psychology perspective

Much of the research from our department and the wider field of environmental psychology reaffirms these findings, but in some cases, our scientific publications have found evidence to the contrary (or at least more nuance). Below, we’ll go through some of the key outcomes of the report and share the EP research perspective:

Between sustainable thinking and sustainable doing: Attitude, behaviour and willingness to change of religious and non-religious Dutch people when it comes to climate

Social Planning Agency (SCP) finding: Roughly two-thirds (59%) of respondents fear climate measures will force them to change their current lifestyle

Environmental Psychology (EP) perspective:

Lifestyle change does not necessarily mean people will be worse off, and wellbeing depends not only on how much pleasure you experience in life, but also from deriving a sense of meaning and purpose, for example by partaking in pro-environmental action. To be more precise, pro-environmental behaviour often enhances people’s sense of wellbeing because it feels meaningful.

In their 2020 paper in Environmental Research Letters, Stephanie Johnson Zawadski, Linda Steg and Thijs Bouman found that there is a “consistently positive relation between individuals’ pro-environmental behaviour and their subjective wellbeing, across different types of pro-environmental behaviour, different indicators of subjective wellbeing, and different samples and study characteristics.”

Their results suggest that “this may be because many pro-environmental behaviours are meaningful, which makes people feel good about themselves when they act pro-environmentally, enhancing subjective wellbeing.”

Source: Meta-analytic evidence for a robust and positive association between individuals’ pro-environmental behaviors and their subjective wellbeing

Support for sustainable policy can also increase after it has been implemented, as illustrated by acceptability of a trial traffic congestion charge in Stockholm, Sweden. People underestimated the positive effects of the policy prior to implementation, but once they experienced them first hand, they were more accepting.

Source: Explaining differences in acceptability before and acceptance after the implementation of a congestion charge in Stockholm

Furthermore, although 59% of respondents in the SCP report perceive pro-environmental policy as a potential threat to their standard of living, the majority of people worldwide perceive that climate change itself is already negatively impacting their personal wellbeing.

A study by Anne van Valkengoed, Linda Steg and Goda Perlaviciute found that psychological distance – the extent to which people feel that an issue directly impacts them (in this case climate change) – is overestimated. The fact that many respondents in their study reported feeling that climate change is currently having negative consequences on their lives went against conventional wisdom that people did not care about climate change impacting them in the here and now.

Source: The psychological distance of climate change is overestimated

SCP finding: People feel that current climate policy is not fair or just, and the costs and benefits of its enforcement are not evenly distributed

EP perspective:

Public acceptability is higher when the costs and benefits of changes are fairly distributed across groups, also known as distributive fairness. That means that policies and system changes are more acceptable to people when the costs and benefits are perceived as being distributed fairly across groups, particularly when vulnerable groups, future generations, nature, and the environment are protected.

As Linda Steg wrote in her paper “Psychology of Climate Change”, distributive fairness can be enhanced by compensation schemes, for example by offering additional benefits to people who would be negatively affected by the proposed changes.

“Public acceptability of pricing policies appears to be higher when redistributing revenues toward those affected and when earmarking revenues for environmental purposes, yet compensation schemes may not enhance perceived distributive fairness when they do not address important (nonfinancial) concerns people have.”

Source: Psychology of Climate Change

SCP finding: Pricing strongly influences sustainable behaviour and willingness to change

EP perspective

In their chapter “Promoting sustainable consumption: the risk of using financial incentives” in Handbook of research in sustainable consumption, Jan Willem Bolderdijk and Linda Steg found that exclusively promoting sustainable consumption through pricing or financial incentives can be a risky move: once those incentives are gone, if there is no underlying motivation to continue, the sustainable consumption behaviour may cease. Moreover, people may believe they have the right to pollute once they paid for it.

Source: Promoting sustainable consumption: The risks of using financial incentives

Although financial incentives are often assumed to be the most effective way to promote pro-environmental behaviour, these incentives have been found to be less effective in practice than emphasising that such actions are actually doing something good for the environment, as oftentimes only minor financial costs and benefits are involved.

People also care about maintaining a favourable view of themselves (they want to maintain a ‘positive self-concept’), and may prefer to see themselves as ‘green’ rather than ‘greedy’. Consequently, people may find economic appeals less attractive than biospheric appeals.

Source: Comparing the effectiveness of monetary versus moral motives in environmental campaigning

SCP finding:
People are concerned about climate change, but that is not the same as feeling responsible for it

EP perspective:

This is described in the SCP paper as something similar to an intention-behaviour gap, or a value-action gap. It means that people may have the intention to behave pro-environmentally, but having that intention does not automatically translate into following through with pro-environmental behaviour (due to lack of ease of access, among others).

Most studies find that citizens view their governments and industries as most responsible for needing to prevent climate change from worsening. That is not to say that citizens themselves are not responsible, just less than more influential institutions with financial and legal means to do so on a larger scale.

Source: Going the extra green mile: When others’ actions fall short of their responsibility

Environmental actions taken by governments and businesses can motivate individuals to engage in pro-environmental actions, too. In a 2021 paper, Ellen van der Werff, Linda Steg and Angela Ruepert found that “citizens report a stronger environmental self-identity and are more likely to act pro-environmentally when they more strongly believe their company or the government aims to mitigate environmental problems.”

Source: My company is green, so am I: the relationship between perceived environmental responsibility of organisations and government, environmental self-identity, and pro-environmental behaviours

Another reason that people may not act on their concerns is that it can be difficult, if not impossible, due to systemic and local limitations, like lack of financial resources to buy an electric vehicle.

Thijs Bouman and Linda Steg researched four common types of barriers in order to explain why people may not always act in keeping with their values: thinking that the benefits for the environmental are lower than the costs involved, lack of knowledge, lack of consideration of environmental consequences in the specific situation, and believing that other people do not care about environmental problems. They found that “multiple barriers need to be addressed simultaneously” in order to “enable people to turn their self-transcendence values into climate action.”

Source: A spiral of (in)action: Empowering people to translate their values in climate action


Photo by João Jesus: