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Political Science in Europe

'Nudging the Jetset to Offset': Voluntary Carbon Offsets and the Limits to Nudging

Environmental Policy
Public Policy
Roger Tyers
University of Southampton
Roger Tyers
University of Southampton

The application of behavioural insights, or nudging, in public policy-making has become increasingly visible in many western countries in recent years. Whilst the most high-profile and ‘successful’ nudge-interventions have been in areas such as public health, road safety, and private pensions; their application in environmental policy has been much patchier. This paper looks at whether nudges might be useful in encouraging air passengers to use voluntary carbon offsetting schemes to offset the carbon from the air travel. In policy terms this is a novel use of nudging, and in environmental terms it is highly pertinent, as air travel is a large and growing contributor to carbon emissions and thus to global warming.
The research strategy this paper is based upon is an iterative, mixed methods approach, combining experimental and qualitative methods, and using students as the research population. Following a randomised controlled trial (RCT) testing different nudges which showed a ‘nil result’, focus groups were held to shed light on why the nudges failed and how they might be improved. Other substantive issues were also discussed, such as the likely effectiveness of soft measures such as nudging and carbon offsetting more broadly.
Following the focus groups, a second RCT is currently scheduled which will take into account the issues raised by the focus groups in order to test ‘new and improved’ nudges. When data collection is finished, the paper may yield insights in two areas. Firstly, there may be useful lessons on the technical ways nudges can be successfully formulated. Secondly, the paper will address normative concerns, particularly identifying some of the ‘limits’ of nudging particularly for pro-environmental behaviours, where – unlike health or financial behaviours - the ‘wellbeing’ of the individual may not be congruent with the wellbeing of society or the environment.
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