Changing our behaviour for the good of the planet

11 April 2022

There is growing momentum around the EU’s shift to climate neutrality by 2050. With legislation stemming from the European Green Deal, and the latest scientific advice from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change indicating the urgency of the changes needed, much will have to be implemented at the local level.

Many cities have set themselves ambitious targets to achieve climate neutrality within their territories – and almost 60% of respondents to a recent Eurocities survey say they have a climate plan in place to get there well before 2050.

This level of systemic and social transformation also implies that other levels of government, civil society and businesses must reorient their operational models to meet these goals – it calls into question our lifestyles and ability to change them to drastically reduce our impact on the planet.

In short, as Christophe Ferrari, President of Grenoble-Alpes Metropole said at the official opening of the Eurocities Environment Forum, which took place in Grenoble, “we don’t have much time to face what we have to face.”

He further highlighted that while there are some obvious steps we can take to reduce emissions, such as changing our mobility habits, making our homes more energy-efficient, or buying more locally produced food – all of which local administrations have a hand in – there are also other less clear routes to emissions.

“In Grenoble 50% of CO2 emissions are indirect,” he explained. For example, how our clothes are made, or where they travel to our markets from; the same goes for many other everyday and specialist products we may find around our homes.

For Filipe Araújo, Vice Mayor of Porto and Chair of the Eurocities Environment Forum, ensuring that the goals on climate are not derailed by other priorities that fly to the top of the political agenda, such as the war in Ukraine, means we need to carefully “think about what we want to build as Europeans,” noting that his reason for being in politics increasingly revolves around leaving something for his children and the future generations.

Acting for climate

In a joint keynote speech, Nicolas Fieulaine, Associate Professor of Social Psychology at the University of Lyon, noted that there remains a huge gap between people’s stated intentions and their actions.

In around 90% of our daily actions, we rely on our ‘system 1’ thinking, which carries a less intensive cognitive toll, but also leads to many decisions being taken based on short term responses. This, he argued, should have an impact on how we communicate on public environmental policy, even though climate plans are inevitably designed for the longer term.

This tendency, according to Corine Faure, Marketing Professor at the Grenoble School of Management, who shared the keynote address, is coupled with our own biases, such as believing that electric cars will not be as reliable, or go as fast as petrol-driven cars when making purchasing decisions.

She cited the example of a study where people in a hospital were given the option of using a disinfectant; one option was an ecological product, and the other not. Results showed that if the researcher is not visible, men, in particular, would choose the non-green option, while when the researcher is visible you see a huge switch towards people making the more environmentally friendly choice – based on this, the hospital changed the place where they put the disinfectants and put it “where everyone can see you.”

An inclusive transition

At the Eurocities Economic Development Forum, a question was raised on how the post-pandemic recovery can be used to build back better, concluding that we need to concentrate on inclusive public services, health, transport and education, and make sure these services work well with and for everybody, otherwise we will lose trust in our democracy. Similar may be said for the climate-neutral transition – without large scale buy-in, there is little chance for success.

Over the last decade and a half, for instance, Grenoble has been working on the thermal renovation of its housing stock and has focussed on finding more ways for people to do this, such as by providing technical and financial support. As the President of the metropole explains, the current energy crisis also necessitates putting more emphasis on things like district heating, to keep on track with the sustainable transition.

For Araújo, including everyone in the communications on climate is a huge task, and responding to the keynote intervention of the representatives from the Grenoble School of Management, he said there are many little ways in which city administrations can also encourage behaviour change. For example, Porto has assigned the revenues from its carbon taxes, and polluting industries, to slash the price of an intermodal monthly ticket on its public transport network, to just €30, which led to a 20% increase in people using public transport.

“More than ever we have a responsibility to let every citizen make his or her home energy efficient,” said Tine Heyse, Deputy Mayor of Ghent and Vice Chair of the Eurocities Environment Forum.

Ghent has created a one-stop shop, offering advice and consulting services to people wishing to do so, by helping them to overcome any barriers, including energy poverty.

Finding the right scale

When it comes to climate, we are all in this together. To pick up on the roughly 50% indirect emissions production mentioned by Ferrari, he said that tackling this cannot be done by the Grenoble-Alpe metropole alone and that reducing those emissions will need the input of the region, state and Europe as well. To this end, the city has been working with a cross-sectional representation of people from the region, via a ‘convention for climate’.

When it comes to engaging local actors in their climate commitments, cities are apt to look at different ways to connect specific actors within their territories.

Grenoble’s Local Economic Pact, for example, brought together an initial 25 public and private entities, “because the world of tomorrow does not wait” – to engage all the local players in carbon neutrality through to 2030.

Porto’s Local Climate Pact has helped develop backing for the city administration’s goal to become carbon neutral by 2030. As Araújo explained, the council only represents around 6% of emissions directly and must rely on its strong role as a trendsetter, and convenor, to get different local actors to all pull in the same direction.

Ghent, now part of the North Sea Port, which accounts for the direct employment of some 100,000 people, has been considering ways to work with the high carbon emitter industries involved in its port activities. One outcome has been to link different companies together through new circular economy focussed supply chains, by ensuring that where possible one companies’ waste can become another’s input resource.

Are we asking too much? This question was posed to Matthew Baldwin, the Manager of the Mission for 100 Climate Neutral and Smart Cities, at the European Commission, to which he answered that the climate neutrality agenda is rather “a big vital pipe dream,” on which “we need to deliver.”

In fact, the Mission offers “377 living examples of cities that want to do it,” that have applied to be one of the 100 cities, and although the ambition is to keep the number of successful applications to that number, there should be a way to leverage further co-benefits, according to Baldwin, who shared the message to “work with us,” because achieving climate neutrality is really “a complex group effort.”

Watch the full debate here:


Alex Godson Eurocities Writer