Interdisciplinary approaches for identifying “low-hanging fruit” for sustainability

Project Description

Climatic and environmental changes pose an existential challenge to humanity. There is a huge range of potential interventions could be used to improve sustainability, from small-scale behavioural changes (e.g. recycling frequently) through to systematic social, economic, or policy approaches (e.g. increasing taxes on air travel). However, the public, governments, and businesses show a surprising reluctance to implement regulatory, policy, and behavioural changes that would mitigate ongoing and future challenges.

Part of the problem is that we know surprisingly little about the relative ease of implementing different approaches to sustainability, or how this relates to their potential benefits. A key knowledge gap is therefore identifying the “low-hanging fruit” of sustainability interventions: interventions or behavioural changes that are acceptable to the public, policy makers, or businesses, but which also have the potential to be highly impactful.

This project will develop and use novel interdisciplinary approaches based in economics, neuroscience, and psychology to identify such interventions, and the social, economic, and demographic factors influencing their chances of success.

This project will first perform a rapid evidence assessment to identify a suite of plausible interventions that could increase the sustainability of individuals, companies, or society more broadly. The exact scope of these interventions would be based on the student’s specific interests (i.e. they could focus on transport, food consumption, energy provision, or maintain a broad scope).

Once a suite of interventions has been identified, the student will use methods derived from economics, neuroscience, and psychology to estimate the public’s “willingness-to-accept” each intervention. The exact methods will vary depending on their interests, but will involve asking stakeholders to quantify their willingness to perform interventions or adopt specific behaviours. For example, the student could ask what kind of price differential would be sufficient to get respondents to shift from eating meat to vegetarian alternatives once, twice, or three times a week. The identity of these stakeholders will again depend on the interest of the student, but will most likely be largely members of the public, but could include business owners or operators, or other decision makers.

This process will produce a typology of interventions based on their degree of acceptability: some will be readily accepted and require little to no incentive, others may be much more unacceptable. The student will also collect key demographic, economic, and social data—based on a survey of the existing literature—to identify potential influences on respondents’ willingness to accept.

The student will then use existing data to estimate the potential benefit of each intervention in terms of greenhouse gas emissions, water use, nitrogen and phosphorus pollution, and other environmental impacts (the exact set of impacts will depend on the kinds of interventions being investigated). This could be extended to estimate the social, economic, equity, or health impacts of interventions as well.

The key output from this project will be a final typology of interventions across two axes: the acceptability of the intervention, and its potential impacts on sustainability, alongside an analysis of the key factors influencing the degree of acceptability. This will allow the identification of interventions which are both acceptable and which provide relatively large environmental benefits: the low-hanging fruit.

Supervisor & Contact

David Williams,

How to Apply

  1. Complete the online REP application form, one for each project of interest, including a copy of your CV.
  2. Complete the EDI form (only one is needed, you do not need to submit more than one if you apply for multiple projects).  Although this is optional, if places are over-subscribed, preference will be given to under-represented groups.