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Understanding and leveraging ‘moments of change’ for pro-environmental behaviour shifts

Periodic Reporting for period 3 - MOCHA (Understanding and leveraging ‘moments of change’ for pro-environmental behaviour shifts)

Reporting period: 2022-01-01 to 2023-06-30

Responding to climate change requires profound changes to individual behaviour. However, much of our behaviour is habitual, resistant to change, and cued by stable contexts (i.e. same time, place and/or social group). When these habits are disrupted, it provides an opportunity to intervene to foster pro-environmental behaviour.

‘Moments of change’ are when individual life circumstances shift within a short timeframe, and include biographical and external changes (e.g. becoming a parent, travel disruption). The relationship between moments of change and environmental impact is complex, with differences between individuals, cultures, and behaviours. The MOCHA (Understanding and leveraging ‘moments of change’ for pro-environmental behaviour shifts) project is an ERC Consolidator Grant running from May 2019 to April 2024. This project brings together insights from several fields to bring a much-needed focus on the timings and causes of pro-environmental behaviour (change).

We aim to examine how pro-environmental lifestyle changes might be achieved through understanding and harnessing ‘moments of change’ in life circumstances. There are two objectives for the research (a) To explore and track moments of pro-environmental behaviour change across cultures and life course; and (b) To examine the effectiveness of behavioural interventions targeted to moments of change.

Three work packages address the project’s objectives through an ambitious programme of cross-cultural research using secondary and big data analyses, longitudinal qualitative interviews, and panel surveys to explore moments of change. These are:
• WP1: Exploring moments of pro-environmental change across cultures and the life-course.
• WP2: Longitudinal behavioural analysis of moments of change.
• WP3: Interventions targeted to moments of change.
By the mid-point of the project, we have completed all set-up activities including recruitment, establishing collaborator agreements, obtaining ethical approvals, and identifying suitable datasets. In addition, we have achieved the following research milestones:

Conceptual development: Within WP1, we held an expert workshop in 2019 to form a shared, interdisciplinary understanding of moments of change, and their potential for behaviour change intervention. A systematic literature review was subsequently completed on how moments of change shape sustainable food choices. We are currently writing a systematic review paper that includes all pro-environmental behaviours (not only food, but also travel, consumption, etc.) and how moments of change impact them.

Exploratory cross-cultural analysis of transitions to retirement, parenthood, and adulthood: Academic collaborators in Lithuania (KTU Kaunas) and Nigeria (University of Ibadan) are assisting with data collection. For Canada and the UK, we are using an online participant panel provider to recruit for the 3-time point quantitative survey with retirees and new parents; and social media advertisements to recruit for the qualitative interviews. Data collection is ongoing. In parallel, we have conducted qualitative interviews with young adults in the UK, exploring changes in pro-environmental identity and habits since starting university; and two online longitudinal surveys to track the impacts of COVID-19 and the transition to university on young people aged 16-24 on their identity and habits.

Secondary data and ‘big data’ analyses: Within WP2, we completed data analysis of the UK Household Longitudinal Survey on how biographical moments of change impact mobility behaviours. Using a US retail consumption dataset, we have also undertaken analysis to identify the effects of moments of change on food choices; and, using a UK retail consumption dataset, designed a protocol for identifying key moments of change (e.g. relocation) and assessed how these impact on sustainable consumption choices. We have also undertaken two empirical studies of the impact of COVID-19 on personal and professional pro-environmental behaviours.

Interventions targeting moments of change: WP3 activities include developing an online intervention to promote sustainable food and mobility habits targeted to moments of change (e.g. starting university).
Our systematic literature reviews and secondary data analysis have shown that there is considerable heterogeneity across moments of change in respect of their impact on different pro-environmental behaviours. Even considering one type of behaviour change (e.g. adopting lower-carbon diets), different moments of change (e.g. childbirth, retirement, COVID-19) will act differentially to either promote or inhibit these changes; and these effects may also vary across populations (e.g. different genders, cultures). Existing definitions of such events under the umbrella of ‘moments of change’ may also be conceptually limited; for instance, it is difficult to identify their trajectories and the extent to which events causally influence people’s lifestyles, given the constant flux of social life. The qualitative research across cultures has similarly shown the wide variability in experiences of diverse moments of change, and the extent to which environmental sustainability is considered during these transitions. One key insight from this work is that there is rarely a discrete start and end point to biographical moments of change, such as retirement or starting a family, with planning starting months or years earlier, and varying periods of subsequent adjustment. The negotiation of these transitions is also inextricably linked to individual factors including pre-existing values and socioeconomic status, as well as more collective factors, for example, the wider physical and sociocultural contexts within which change occurs. With reference to the latter, the COVID-19 pandemic has significantly affected the transition to parenthood and retirement. However, we have found evidence for pro-environmental behaviour change during transitions. The quantitative secondary analysis shows, for example, that job changes that affect income (e.g. promotion) are associated with an increase in red meat consumption (controlling for confounds, such as household income).

In this sense, there is no uniform effect of ‘moments of change’ on pro-environmental behaviour; nor even any uniform effect of a particular moment of change on a particular pro-environmental behaviour, and it may be more useful in designing pro-environmental interventions to identify and focus on the specifics of discrete moments of change. That said, we have also found that considerable change does occur during moments of change, providing opportunities for individuals to reconfigure their lifestyles in more sustainable ways, or for interventions to more effectively reshape behaviour. Factors including the activation of values through changes in circumstances may also predict whether these opportunities for pro-environmental lifestyle change are enacted. For the second half of the project, we will increasingly focus on empirically testing these interventions to identify how best to exploit moments of change to achieve sustainable outcomes.