A creative way behavioural insights could be applied to COP26

In this blog post, the Behavioural Insights Team outlines a few creative ways behavioural insights could be applied to COP26 in Glasgow – from lead-up, to opening day, to delivery of the conference itself. This is a tongue-in-cheek manifesto of how the conference would look if overzealous behavioural scientists helped organise it.

Background: the Behavioural Insights Team, also known as The Nudge Unit, exists to improve people’s lives and communities. The Team has grown from a seven-person unit at the heart of the UK government to a global social purpose company with offices around the world. Its mission remains the same. They generate and apply behavioural insights to inform policy, improve public services and deliver results for citizens and society.


What if a behavioural scientist redesigned climate negotiations?

This autumn, decision-makers from all over the world will arrive in Glasgow for COP26 – the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference of the Parties. Each will bring with them varying desires and demands surrounding environmental policy but all will carry the same decision making software: the human brain.

Each decision-maker will be influenced by the same quirks, biases and fundamentals of human behaviour as any other person. It therefore pays to think about the conference through a behavioural lens.

Since starting in 1995, the COP has been the main lever for multilateral climate change action – culminating in breakthroughs in climate change mitigation such as the Kyoto Protocol and the Paris Agreement. However the conference has also been the object of intense frustration amongst environmentalists due to the non-binding nature of the accords.

COP is no stranger to behavioural insights

The Paris Agreement is itself an exercise in leveraging the ‘softer’ behavioural insights in light of the inability of countries to arrive at a legally binding agreement. It involves countries making pledges – ‘nationally determined contributions’, in the formal lingo. Public pledges are a powerful tool. Once someone makes a public pledge, their pride, desire to avoid embarrassment associated with failure, and public accountability increase the chance that they will follow through.

Meanwhile, the fact that almost every country in the world has created their own nationally determined contributions creates a social norm in favour of at least some emissions mitigation policy. The hope is that the social norm creates a ratchet effect of increasingly ambitious goals. Indeed, ratcheting up the ambition of these pledges is the focus of COP26 in Glasgow.

So, climate negotiators are already applying behavioural science to fight climate change. But we wondered what would happen if we supercharged the application of behavioural science at COP26?  We think it would look a lot like this:

Green from the get go! 

While politicians must conform to short-term incentives, citizens’ assemblies can crowd-source desires for the long-term good. Even before you arrive at the conference in Glasgow, deliberative forums and citizens’ assemblies would have taken place throughout 2021 across all inhabited continents – culminating in ‘people’s pledges’ which would create political capital for more ambitious nationally determined contributions.

Arriving in Glasgow

When you land in Glasgow, whether by sailboat or a fuel-guzzling jet, your next ride is a smart EV, setting the tone for the meeting to come.

At the Scottish Event Campus, you and all the other delegates contribute to a conference-wide ‘planetary pre-mortem’. Pre-mortems make it safe for people who are knowledgeable about an undertaking – but worried about its weaknesses – to speak up. BIT recommends them as a tool to mitigate planning biases such as groupthink. Together, you imagine all the different ways failing to mitigate climate change would look in 2050. You anonymously brainstorm the factors leading to those failures.

After the pre-mortem, you feel concerned about the dangers of making insufficient progress – but encouraged that other delegates are also aware of the challenges, and focused on potential solutions.

For the second activity, you walk across the River Clyde to the Glasgow Science Centre IMAX. Just as the first ‘blue dot’ images of Earth from outer space catalysed the modern environmental movement, here an inspirational film of global progress and collaboration inspires you towards environmental optimism. The film whimsically shows fictional yet realistic scenes of post-conference jubilation, followed by a future Nobel Prize ceremony awarding COP26 attendees (jointly) for their success in mitigating climate change.

Studies show that interacting with realistic computer renderings of one’s future self using virtual reality tools show an increased tendency to save money for retirement. Similar visceral visualisations of the future motivate COP26 attendees, helping them overcome present bias and heightening their aspirations.

Finally, you play a quick version of a classic cooperation game where you (and everyone else) are given a choice of keeping a donation of trees for yourself, or contributing them towards a global pot, whereby the sum of donated trees contributed is doubled, and shared back out equally to all. Conscious of the world watching, you contribute all your trees to the global pot, and to your pleasant surprise, so does everyone else – leaving everyone double the amount of trees to plant.

Let’s make a deal 

COP organisers have created a variety of comfortable, private spaces where negotiators can be candid and transparent with each other – perhaps replicating the breakthrough backroom deal that saved COP15 in Copenhagen. Behavioural scientists (and ‘negotiation geniuses) Deepak Malhotra and Max Bazerman have elegantly summarised evidence suggesting that people systematically overestimate the value of withholding information. Negotiators who are open with their aims and reasoning create more win-win settlements instead of haggling over zero-sum outcomes (finding ways to increase the ‘size of the pie’ instead of arguing for a ‘larger slice of the pie’).

On the third day of the conference, the Norwegian Nobel Committee announces a new Nobel Memorial Prize for Climate Change Mitigation. This is a strong incentive for those delegates and leaders who are motivated by personal and national status. The prize could go to any individual or group, but a sense of inevitability, momentum, and buzz grows at the Scotish Event Campus – the first Nobel Memorial Prize for Climate Change Mitigation might go to the delegates who radically ratchet up the Paris Climate Accord goals.

In summary

Negotiators may come up short at COP26 for a variety or reasons. They may be insufficiently ambitious due to present bias; over-optimistic about the world’s ability to mitigate climate change without ambitious international collaboration; distrustful of the motives of other negotiators.

Pluralistic ignorance occurs when individuals privately reject a social norm or belief but comply with it due to a mistaken belief that most other people endorse the norm. In climate negotiations, countries – and their negotiators – may underestimate the ambition of other countries (despite feeling ambitious themselves). It is crucial to make ambition transparent.

At the same time, countries should be honest about what is holding them back from being ambitious, and what they need to ’get to yes’. Withholding information is an overrated negotiation tactic.

The foundation of successful climate negotiation is in practicing good climate science, but policymakers and event organisers will benefit from practicing good behavioural science, too.

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2 thoughts on “A creative way behavioural insights could be applied to COP26

  1. Abandoning physical attendance at conferences significantly reduces emissions per head by participants. Those travelling to the average international 12-day conference – like the impending COP26 on climate change , due in Glasgow this November – will each score up an average of 2,961 kilogrammes (kg) of carbon emissions

    The bulk of this, 2,300 kg, will be due to flights. But even when locals attend such a conference, totalling up hotel accommodation, local transport of 10 miles to the venue and conference venue fuel will still come to 660 kg per head, according to the Polish National Centre for Emissions Management.

    In contrast, participation in a viral conference lasting 12 days – including emissions from home gas and electricity; computer manufacture; and use of networks and data centres – averages out at just 36kg per person. That is only 7% of the carbon footprint of being at a local conference. And just 1% of the emissions caused by attending an international conference.

    1. These statistics are startling and it will be interesting to see if we go back to our old, carbon-intensive ways after the pandemic. I am starting a new phase of a project for the European Commission that entails setting up a new working group. It has been decided that for the next two years, it will be entirely virtual. We are seeing some hybrid conferences such as World Sustainable Energy Days in Austria, held last June. Those who attended physically were mainly people close to the venue. But I know for the next summer study for the European Council for an Energy Efficient Economy (eceee) it is to be a “live” event next June. But they are doing everything possible to get attendees to take the French TGV which comes within 10 km of the location and, as you know and not to everyone’s satisfaction, that is low carbon thanks to France’s dependence on nuclear. I did attend a 5 day virtual eceee event last June and it worked well but people felt a lot was lost not being able to go from Monday morning to Saturday morning non-stop. When virtual, it is for about 8 hours and then nothing. But you make very good points and we simply cannot go back to our old ways.

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