15.07.22 “Stigmatizing certain sectors makes no sense” Interview with Professor Martin Kesternich, deputy head of the Environmental and Climate Economics research department at the Leibniz Center for European Economic Research (ZEW) • Reading time: 3 min.

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Summary

What motivates people to help combat climate change? What role do the benefits for individuals play and how important are group dynamics in relation to climate measures?
Professor Martin Kesternich is investigating all these questions. He is a professor of economics and deputy head of the Environmental and Climate Economics research department at the Leibniz Center for European Economic Research (ZEW).




Professor Martin Kesternich, deputy head of the Environmental and Climate Economics research department at the Leibniz Center for European Economic Research (ZEW)

Professor Kesternich, how strong is the determination among Germans to help combat climate change, including in the context of travel?

A study carried out in 2020 by the German Environment Agency on environmental and climate protection in Germany and people’s attitudes to it shows that 65 percent of those surveyed believe climate action is very important. According to another study, 75 percent of the people questioned were prepared to change some of their behavior. For example, 80 percent wanted to save energy and 74 percent were happy to buy regional products. Travel comes much lower down the list. Only just over half of respondents would consider reducing the number of vacations involving air travel and only 43 percent would be prepared to travel more often by rail. This means that there is considerable willingness to combat climate change, but the level varies significantly depending on the type of action that needs to be taken. 

You have carried out detailed research into the motivation for climate action. What approach do you take and what have your experiences been?

A while ago we worked with a long-distance bus company, for example. We wanted to find out under what circumstances more bus travelers would be prepared to make their journey “green” by paying for CO2 offsetting. Initially around 30 percent of the passengers opted for the offset. The question was: How could we increase this percentage? Our premise was that people are prepared to do something when they have the feeling that other people are doing it too. Therefore, the company added something on top of every kilogram of CO2 offset by the passengers. That resulted in a much greater willingness among the company’s customers to add offsetting to their tickets. The scheme worked best when the same amount was added. In other words, the strategy of equal shares was the most successful. It is worth mentioning that this also led to an increased willingness to offset when the passengers booked their next ticket, even after the campaign was over. The incentive is the feeling that other people are also doing something. That was one of the key messages from the studies. 

Many cities are taking action on climate change. Does that have an impact on the motivation of individuals?

Cities are taking climate action by setting a good example and hoping that their citizens follow them. In our research, we explained to some of the participants that the city of Mannheim has already invested in climate protection in connection with the German Federal Garden Show, for instance in the trees. The commitment made by the municipality did not in fact increase residents’ motivation to donate themselves. What did work was to tell people what other people – their neighbors or members of their peer group – had done. This is known as the peer effect. 

Membership of a group seems to be important. Does that also apply to travel?

We do not know whether it works in the same way for travel. There is not enough empirical evidence available yet. But one thing that I think is important is that the peer effect can result in polarization. If fewer members of your peer group travel by air, it may be that there is less acceptance of other people doing so. I think that is dangerous. The climate is a global public good. Where we make our CO2 savings is irrelevant for the purposes of the climate. From an economic perspective, we should save CO2 where it is cheapest to do so. For me, this is why stigmatizing certain sectors makes no sense. 

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