Locked in behaviors

March 18, 2022

Changing behavior is a classic topic of conversation about climate action. How many times have you heard how you need to reduce flying, eat less meat, etc?

As I think about opportunities for climate action and building solutions, one heuristic that I’ve developed is the idea of what behaviors are “locked in”, versus those that can still be changed significantly or reversed. For example, we know flying is one of the single most emission-intensive activities, but will people ever stop flying?

I’ve found this exercise helpful in thinking about where real marginal impact can be had. For example, if we think of solutions to decarbonise air travel, these would be all the more important if we assume air travel isn’t going away. If we think there’s a possibility that it is, then from a climate action perspective it would be far more important to push for a reduction and eventual elimination of the practice.

Another sector that comes to mind when thinking about “locked in behaviors” is ecommerce. There is plenty of debate about the carbon footprint of ecommerce compared to traditional retail, but if we believe that that the shift from in-person to online commerce is here to stay, then the impact of building solutions to decarbonise and reduce the impact of ecommerce becomes all the more clear.

A more nuanced example might be driving - having lived in the US, Denmark, and the Netherlands, I’ve seen the spectrum of transportation behaviors, and believe that it is possible for many more people to switch from cars as a primary means of transport to bikes or public transportation. While electrification of cars and trucks is extremely important, I don’t see driving as a completely “locked in behavior”, and therefore believe it’s worth also investing heavily in shifting transportation behavior towards alternatives.

It’s worth noting that this type of logic could be used to justify certain high-emission behaviors - for example, if people will keep flying, why should I try and reduce my flying? But I believe that mindset misses a key part of the logic behind symbolic behavior change. In that example, I’d argue the most reasonable stance from a climate action perspective is to say that perhaps yes, flying isn’t going away, but I will avoid flying when possible because I am waiting for cleaner flying technologies. As a consumer, I can’t wait to vote with my wallet to support such technologies, and discourage dirtier options.

Where do you see “locked in behaviors”? And where do we still have an opportunity to meaningfully change things? I’d love to hear your thoughts.