When we talk about innovations to deal with the climate crisis, we tend to think of new technologies developed by physical scientists. Although a real sense of climate emergency now seems to be permeating the global consciousness thanks to recent high-profile campaigning, many of us have been slow to actually make changes in the way we live ourselves. Finding out what it would take to motivate people to take practical steps to reduce emissions is where behavioral science comes in.

As an example, Glasgow City Council recently announced its aim to reduce net carbon emissions to zero by 2030. Some have cast doubt on the council’s capacity to achieve this ambitious target, not least because many sources of emissions are beyond its direct control.

Take the energy used by households in heating their homes. Glasgow is blessed and cursed by fine old buildings, but they require a lot of energy to heat. One challenge that the council faces is persuading owners of these buildings to retrofit them with efficient heating and insulation.

Research suggests that money alone isn’t enough of an incentive. In Michigan in the US, 7,000 households were randomly selected to receive a visit by a community worker who explained the benefits of retrofitting heating and cooling systems and offered to help complete the paperwork that would deliver free materials and installation. The campaign did increase retrofitting relative to a control group from the same population, but the uptake accounted for just 6 percent of eligible households, at a cost of around US$1,000 per home.