Cultural benefits can boost uptake of flight offsets

New research into voluntary purchases of carbon offsets shows how cultural influences can increase people’s willingness to engage in environmental action

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COP27 signed off with more of a whimper than a bang when it ended on 20 November, after a two-day delay. While there was fanfare about an agreement for wealthy nations to provide financial assistance to poorer countries, many of which are already bearing the brunt of the climate crisis, the key takeaway from the summit was that the world at large remains unable to agree real cuts to the harmful greenhouse gas emissions that are causing global warming. So, is there more that can be done at an individual level?

The term ‘carbon offset’ entered popular parlance in the noughties, linked to increased concern about CO2 as an atmospheric pollutant. Efforts to reduce industrial greenhouse gas emissions, improve energy efficiencies and increase renewable energy projects have since proliferated, with the general public invited to play its part through recycling, home insulation, switching to green energy suppliers or paying an additional sum when flying to offset their miles.

With aviation one of the leading producers of carbon emissions and offsetting airmiles relatively easy and inexpensive to do, one might consider that getting people to offset their travel would be a no-brainer. This is not the case, however, so LBS PhD student in Organisational Behaviour Ee Hwee Lau and Professor Aneeta Rattan teamed up with Rainer Romero-Canyas, a lead senior behavioural social scientist from the Environmental Defense Fund and Krishna Savani, Professor of Management from the Hong Kong Polytechnic University to understand the best way to motivate people to offset their flights.

The research group theorized that culturally-relevant frames can increase people’s willingness to engage in environmental action. To test their theory, they ran a series of experiments in the US and India to understand if the same information presented in culturally specific contexts would motivate people from the targeted cultures to act. People were randomly assigned to different messaging frames in a hypothetical flight-buying scenario and the effectiveness of the frames in promoting the purchase of the offsets was tested. The findings, which were first published in the Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology and have recently been reported in Forbes, clearly show that understanding different cultures and contexts can be important when persuading people to support environmental action. The research also shows that there can be economic benefit in targeting cultural preferences in the right way.

With COP27 showing that much remains to be done to tackle climate change and the road to COP28 now underway, consumers’ decisions to offset emissions will be particularly important to address the rapidly escalating climate crisis and direct industry attention to consumers’ environmental concerns.