Richard Carmichael works on behaviour change, public engagement and policy for Net Zero. He tells The Psychologist how food policy can help us reach climate goals. January 2021.
The shift to sustainable diets is not expected to happen at the pace and extent required for Net Zero carbon if left to the market, individuals, or voluntary industry initiatives. In Defra’s 2008 segmentation of pro-environmental behaviours, ‘changing to a lower-impact diet’ was located in the ‘able but unwilling to change’ quadrant…
As the climate, environmental and public health crises continue to worsen, there is a clear and urgent need for policy to support wider and faster shifts towards sustainable diets. After many years of neglect by policy, the context in the UK now shows signs of being more favourable for such intervention, due to the legally-binding Net Zero target of summer 2019, the growth in plant-based eating, and the opportunity Brexit presents to reform agriculture.
The social and cultural aspects of eating practices ensure that changing them remains a challenge. But well-designed interventions could make these aspects begin to work in favour of change. There are a number of low-risk, low-cost pragmatic steps that can and should be taken to reduce emissions due to diet. These could also deliver considerable co-benefits for health.
As part of renewed interest in the contribution of behaviour change to meeting climate commitments, the Committee on Climate Change appointed me to set out policy recommendations to support such behavioural and societal shifts for Net Zero. The resulting report, Behaviour change, public engagement and Net Zero, released in October 2019, covered how government policy could better support public engagement with climate action generally and how to support behavioural and societal shifts to reducing emissions in four areas: driving, flying, what we eat, and how we heat our homes. To a large degree this will be through lowering barriers to low carbon choices, and here I will focus on the psychological aspects of behaviour change relating to food.
Putting it on the menu
One such barrier is the lack of plant-based options on catering menus. In the UK, 30 per cent of all meals are provided through education, healthcare and other government funded institutions. But they do not routinely offer any purely plant-based options.