It’s time to get creative with climate incentives

Turn on the creativity.
Turn on the creativity.
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We have all heard the doomsday stories about plastic oceans, burning forests, and pervasive global hunger. They’re all true. And most of us have  agreed we need to do something about it. While we haven’t agreed on who the “we” is, for the purposes of a timely and successful movement, let’s assume it’s everybody, in some capacity: businesses, governments, civil society, and individuals. Every member of the “we” is necessary, albeit with varying styles of engagement.

Incentives for participating in the climate movement run the gamut, from political, to monetary, to emotional, to social. Some groups may be self-motivated by outrage, fear, or moral purpose. Other groups may require a stronger, more consequences-oriented approach. Suffice it to say, everyone has their price. It is our job to figure out the most effective currency.

The most commonly used climate incentive—taxes—are anything but innovative, but they do provide a baseline by compelling businesses to either change their practices or let their contributions to climate change hit their bottom line. As much as sticks work, however, there also ought  to be an option of a carrot. Much of the climate discussion, when it comes to businesses and governments, is about mitigation. This means the prevention, or limitation, of additional greenhouse gasses from entering the atmosphere. But no matter what we do today, even if we go carbon neutral by next week, we will still feel the effects of climate change. Beyond charging penalties for new emissions, we need to encourage something that is just as important as repercussions: resiliency. Building resilience through architectural changes, urban planning, reforestation, seawall construction, and many other practices can help limit the effects of climate change. Tax incentives can’t just be to prevent the future from getting worse, they need to protect the present.

Climate policy incentive innovation at the grocery store

What if we applied a similar mitigation-plus-resiliency model to influence individual behavior?

You may know that LED light bulbs use less energy than compact fluorescent, or that canvas bags (when used many times) have a smaller footprint than plastic ones. But when you go to the store, surely you don’t know whether Rao’s or Prego makes the less carbon-intensive tomato sauce. If you could be incentivized to purchase the environmentally friendlier option, would you take it?

Here, a more innovative approach to incentives could go a long way. Imagine: much like the discounts offered on a loyalty card, at checkout, the store might offer a discount based on an item’s level of sustainability. In return, the store would get a tax break for each environmentally friendly item sold. To some, a small discount on a jar of tomato sauce may not seem significant, but for the millions of Americans that are living below the poverty line, small discounts add up quickly.

Either way, one person making a choice in one store may not have much of an effect—and yet an incentive program such as this one, instituted across cities and states, pairing an incentive for individuals with an incentive for businesses, could have wide-ranging effects. Businesses would work harder to produce the most climate-sensitive products in order to compete, shoppers would reap the savings, and the whole program has an underlying educational component, encouraging people to understand the choices they are making.

How to build emotional incentives for climate action

Financial incentives are an important part of the climate equation, but for individuals, the emotional component cannot be overlooked. There is a reason that the walrus death scene in David Attenborough’s Our Planet caused so much outrage. How can we turn that emotion into something actionable?

Emotional incentives rely on two building blocks: guilt and pride. Guilt is the more obvious one, i.e. if you choose that plastic straw, you are murdering a sea turtle. Regardless of the fact the straw campaign was a massive waste of highly effective marketing (even full elimination of plastic straws would have little or no effect on our climate and biodiversity catastrophes), the guilt began to work. Not only did people start to request paper or metal straws, some businesses saw the increased demand and began to only offer the more sustainable option. That sacrificial turtle created enough guilt in enough people to have an effect on the entire straw-making industry.

Guilt can only take us so far, though. Much like the doom-and-gloom climate narrative, a constant feeling of culpability can easily become normalized, diluting the effectiveness. Pride on the other hand, has a sustainable supply chain: It never stops feeling good to feel good about yourself.

There are many ways we can turn pride into large-scale action, especially if we craft incentives that pair pride with excitement. Giving people the opportunity to prove their environmental responsibility, especially on a public (virtual) stage, encourages actions by numbers. Something as simple as donating to plant a tree, using a canvas grocery bag, ditching that plastic straw for a paper one, or opting for your electricity to come from renewable resources all have negligible costs—but somehow, when the action is shared on social media, it becomes a point of pride, a badge of honor.

The idea of tying environmental responsibility to social currency has potential. Incentivizing the sharing (and setting examples) of positive lifestyle choices will have an amplifying effect that should trickle into corporate decision making. Influential people with larger platforms who are sustainably selective about their brand partners will incentivize businesses to make changes as well, offering the second of a one-two punch on corporate incentives delivered by individual social media accounts.

And now, a test case on incentives

Incentives work. However, what one type of stakeholder may think of as an incentive usually means nothing to another. For this web of encouragement to lead to systemic change for the climate movement, incentives must be carefully designed for specific audiences. This is not a problem per se, just that it requires a psychological assessment for some stakeholders, and a financial assessment for others.

Getting this right will probably cost a bit more money and a bit more time, but it’s worth it. Incentives are key to bringing more participants to the table—and just to prove it, for everyone who shares this article on social media using the hashtag #makeclimatecoolagain, Sustainable Partners Inc. will plant a tree. How’s that for a simple and easy incentive?

Adam Met is the executive director of Sustainable Partners Inc., a nonprofit that addresses climate change systems through media, research, and incentive-based initiatives. He also is a member of the six-times certified platinum band AJR, as well as a UN Development Programme Advocate, a PhD candidate, and host of the new podcast Planet Reimagined.