To combat climate change, release the brake

14th May, 2020

A couple of years ago, the Nobel-Prize winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman spoke to a distinguished group of social scientists, and shared with them what he regarded as “the best idea I ever heard in psychology”. The idea derived from Kurt Lewin — described by Prof Kahneman as “my intellectual grandfather”.

Lewin was a great German-born psychologist who — thankfully, given his Jewish origins — escaped to the US in 1933. Lewin described behaviour as a balance between driving forces and restraining forces: the accelerator and the brake, if you will. We often try to change behaviour, especially that of other people, by pushing harder on the accelerator. The proposition that so impressed Prof Kahneman was that it is better to try to release the brake.

The vehicular metaphor has seemed particularly apt of late, as my wife and I ponder replacing our disintegrating diesel car. A friend urged us to buy a Tesla: “Sometimes you just need to do the right thing,” he opined, although I suspect the “right thing” probably involves the bicycle and the train rather than an energy-hungry vehicle perfectly capable of causing accidents and traffic jams. Still, let us accept the premise for the sake of argument. What could induce us to “do the right thing” and buy an electric car?

The UK government seems to favour loading on the incentives — it taxes fuel and subsidises electric cars to the tune of up to £3,500. But as Lewin might have observed, rather than asking, “How can I get them to buy an electric car?”, perhaps the British government should be asking, “What’s stopping them?”

What is stopping us, in brief, is a lack of charging points. We live in Oxford and the good news is that Oxford City Council is on the case. The bad news is that they have been on the case since we first contacted them in 2017. They say they plan to install a “super-rapid charging hub” at a park-and-ride car park. That won’t happen until 2022 and it will be impractically far away — 20 minutes’ drive across a congested city. There’s a slower charger in the neighbourhood, but that would require parking, walking 10 minutes home, and then walking 10 minutes back again to collect it some hours later — a regular chore we could do without, although I suppose it’s no worse than walking a dog.

We asked the council if we could run a cable from our house power supply through a drainage channel that already exists. “Not an idea the council will consent to”, came back the reply, citing a “dangerous trip hazard”. That leaves us no closer to doing the right thing than we were three years ago.

Local councils have been hamstrung by deep spending cuts, and Tim Schwanen of Oxford university’s Transport Studies Unit told me that this is by no means just an Oxford problem. Despite Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s pledge to make sure that no one is ever more than 30 miles from a charging point, the government’s willingness to fund the infrastructure is doubtful. The business model for private charging is unclear. This is not insuperable, but it is a problem nonetheless.

And obstacles abound elsewhere: motorway service owners, for example, grumble that the electricity distribution network operators are the bottleneck for fast-charging stations.

It is an exciting prospect to think that electric vehicles will unleash the potential of renewable energy sources. Wind and solar offer a clean — and increasingly cheap — way to top up their batteries. Meanwhile a large pool of electric cars, connected to a robust smart grid, could use their batteries to smooth out fluctuations of wind and sun. Affordable electric cars are arriving, but that smart renewable-powered grid still seems some way off.

Governments are capable of focusing on brakes rather than accelerators; the question, “How can we make it easy?” is at the heart of the “nudge” approach to policy. In the spring of 2012, for example, the UK’s Department of Energy and Climate Change and the Behavioural Insights Team, known as the “nudge unit”, experimented with offering some people inexpensive insulation for their attics while others were offered a higher price for insulation but it came coupled with a loft clearance service. For homeowners who opted for clean-up, a crew of workers removed the stuff from the attic, giving the household a chance to go full Marie Kondo. The insulation was installed, and then the crew recycled or donated unwanted items and put back family heirlooms. It was a clever idea, based on the insight that a major obstacle to installing the insulation was not price, but the daunting prospect of sorting through a loft full of junk. Did it work? Quite possibly, but the study was too small and the results too shaky to be sure. The political spotlight moved elsewhere.

That is a shame. We should be thinking harder about such opportunities. Too often we are stamping on the accelerator with the handbrake on. When we switch from asking, “How can I persuade them to do the right thing?” to, “Why aren’t they doing the right thing already?”, empathy and insight begin to flow.

Written for and first published in the Financial Times on 28 February 2020.

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