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Measuring what works : Quantifying greenhouse gas emission reductions of behavioural interventions to reduce driving, meat consumption, and household energy use

  • Seth Wynes
  • Kimberly A. Nicholas
  • Jiaying Zhao
  • Simon D. Donner
Publishing year: 2018
Language: English
Publication/Series: Environmental Research Letters
Volume: 13
Issue: 11
Document type: Journal article review
Publisher: IOP Publishing

Abstract english

Interventions that promote pro-environmental behaviours are increasingly necessary in reducing use of high-emissions goods and services to meet international climate change targets. Here we assess the greenhouse gas emissions reductions associated with behavioural interventions in three high-emitting domains (personal vehicle use, meat consumption, and household energy use) based on an analysis of the peer-reviewed literature. We examined 40 studies from 1991-2018 involving 886 576 subjects. We found that some of the most robust interventions shown to reduce emissions were financial incentives for personal vehicles, defaults for reduced meat consumption, and feedback for home energy use. We estimate mean annual reductions of 571 kgCO2e per vehicle driver for reduced vehicle use, 51 kgCO2e per individual for reduced meat consumption, and 149 kgCO2e per household for reduced energy use. Despite substantial attention to behavioural interventions in the literature, we find that few studies are suitable for quantifying emissions reductions (N = 6 for diet, N = 5 for personal vehicles) and few (N = 3) are conducted outside OECD countries. Due to this imbalance in the literature, we focus our findings on western economies. We find substantial variation in the emission reductions achieved with different interventions within each domain; interventions in diet ranged from reductions of 231 kgCO2e to increases of 116 kgCO2e per person per year (both statistically significant). Further, emissions reductions are sensitive to external factors, such as the emissions intensity of the electrical grid, which may change over time. Key gaps in the literature include a lack of studies conducted using randomized controlled trials or follow-ups, and in high-impact areas for emissions reductions including air travel. We highlight promising areas of intervention, such as habit changes to promote mode shifts in personal transportation, which would benefit from an analysis of greenhouse gas emissions reductions in future research.


  • Climate Research
  • Political Science (excluding Public Administration Studies and Globalization Studies)
  • climate change mitigation
  • household energy
  • meat consumption
  • personal vehicles
  • pro-environmental behaviors


  • ISSN: 1748-9318
Kimberly Nicholas
E-mail: kimberly [dot] nicholas [at] LUCSUS [dot] lu [dot] se

Senior lecturer

LUCSUS (Lund University Centre for Sustainability Studies)

+46 46 222 68 12

Josephson, 112

Josephson, Biskopsgatan 5, Lund



Kimberly Nicholas is a Senior Lecturer in Sustainability Science at Lund University in Sweden. She studies how to manage natural resources to both support a good life today, and leave a living planet for future generations. In particular, her research focuses on sustainable farming systems, using nature-based solutions to benefit both people and ecosystems, and linking research with policy and practice to support a zero-emissions society that she hopes to live to see. She nearly became a consultant to the California wine industry instead. She holds a BSc and PhD from Stanford University and MSc degrees from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the University of California-Davis.   

P.O. Box 170, SE-221 00 Lund, Sweden
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info [at] lucsus [dot] lu [dot] se