Taking the complexity turn to steer carbon reduction policy: applying practice theory, complexity theory and cultural practices to policies addressing climate change
Twist, Benjamin Robert John
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Achieving the Scottish Government’s carbon reduction targets requires not only the decarbonisation of industry and electricity generation, which is now largely underway, but also significant changes in the actions and decisions of millions of individuals, whose carbon emissions fall outside the areas which Government can control. Transport, much of it undertaken by individuals, accounts for around 20% of Scotland’s carbon emissions. Policy aimed at changing individual travel behaviours will therefore become increasingly important. Commonly applied behaviour change strategies based on rational actor theory face conceptual problems and cannot overcome the lack of agency experienced by individuals buffeted by a range of influences in a complex world. Practice theory relocates the site of analysis from the individual to the social and helps to overcome these problems, but it is not clear how to deliberately change practices to achieve the carbon reductions required. Understanding practices as emergent properties of complex social systems suggests that working to alter the complex social system may lead to different emergent properties, i.e. more sustainable practices. My research explored this approach by conducting an experiment in Aberdeen that sought to influence the complex social system within which audiences travel to a large theatre in the city. Emergent properties of the system encouraged travel by private car: problems of (in)convenience and insecurity were shaping individuals’ travel practices. Collaboration between actors powerful enough to affect the system – a transport provider, a local authority and the theatre itself – was needed to influence it sufficiently to bring about a change in the main travel mode from private cars to public transport. Analysis of this case identifies the need to acknowledge the relevance of complexity theory when developing carbon reduction policy. Perverse incentives encouraging public organisations to focus on their own ‘direct’ carbon emissions need to be replaced with a duty to collaborate with others to reduce society’s overall carbon emissions. Those making policy and those implementing it will therefore need to understand and apply complexity theory, and will need highly developed skills in managing long-term collaborative projects rather than ‘delivering’ one-off changes. These attributes may be found in practitioners from diverse and less obvious fields, including the cultural sector.