Leaked IPCC Report: Behavior Change Does (and Does Not) Matter

Two seemingly contradictory statements offer an argument familiar to many.

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Typically, when there’s discussion of reports by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the focus tends to be on policy, politics, technology, and international negotiations. A new, leaked version of an upcoming IPCC report, however, is shedding some light on that age-old, perennial, and somewhat frustrating debate about whether behavior change or systems change is what matters.

The report in question—from Working Group III of the IPCC—is due out in March 2022, but was leaked by a group called Scientist Rebellion for fear of the final version being watered down by government-level political negotiation. Here’s how they described their actions: 

We leaked the report because governments—pressured and bribed by fossil fuel and other industries, protecting their failed ideology and avoiding accountability—have edited the conclusions before official reports were released in the past. We leaked it to show that scientists are willing to disobey and take personal risk to inform the public.

Much of it does dive deep into the aforementioned debates about technology and policy and includes important statements that confirm a lot of what we already know, such as: 

  • Greenhouse gas emissions are going to have to peak by 2025 to avoid climate breakdown.
  • The world’s richest 10% causes more than one-third of global emissions.
  • Delayed action increases challenges to economic and societal feasibility after 2030. 

The sections on behavior change, however, have caught a lot of peoples’ eyes. Specifically, two statements that some might see as contradictory offer an argument that will be familiar to many. First, it says very clearly that individual and voluntary change will not be enough to save us: 

"Individuals can contribute to overcoming barriers and enable climate change mitigation. Individual behavioural change in isolation cannot reduce GHG emissions significantly."

That’s not to say, though, that behavior change doesn’t matter. It just matters for entirely different reasons than are typically discussed. (Sound familiar?) Here’s the second key statement from the report: 

“If 10-30% of the population were to demonstrate commitment to low-carbon technologies, behaviours, and lifestyles, new social norms would be established.”

The report goes on to suggest that behavior-based changes such as reducing air travel, adjusting heating and cooling temperatures, shifting to public transit and active travel options could provide savings of as much as 2 Gt of CO2 equivalent by 2030, and that a shift to more plant-centric diets could shave 50% of emissions off the average Western diet. 

Here’s the thing, though: We need to separate the idea that pursuing behavior change always means appealing to individuals to change their behavior. The report also makes clear that there are much larger savings to be had from “demand side” reductions in emissions, which often means behavior change; but through policy, design, and engineering that makes low carbon options the norm. The report suggests, for example, that one third of emissions savings in the transport sector could be achieved by promoting compact cities, co-locating homes and offices, and other infrastructural tweaks that make car dependence less prominent. 

In much the same way that businesses, organizations, and cities can make meat-eating less easy and less common, there are likely opportunities almost everywhere to encourage and promote behavior change—not through guilt-tripping or pleading with our fellow neighbors, but by reshaping the environments which ultimately shape our behaviors in the first place. 

We should note that a leaked report is a leaked report. And given the fact that there is a complex process of review and negotiation, the final report will look much different than what we’re discussing here. It’s always going to be hard for the outside world to judge which changes are made for valid, scientific reasons, and which are the result of politics, policy, and diplomacy. This incident does, however, provide a peek under the hood at what some scientists are saying—and also at how much they are willing to break the rules in order to sound the alarm. 

Ultimately, very little changes about the task that each of us has in front of us, which is to find the specific, unique opportunities we have to shape the society around us—and then to grasp those opportunities as hard as we possibly can.