Decarbonisingthe UK in line with national targets set by the UK Government for emissionreductions of 80% by 2050 from 1990 levels is part of a greater globalcommitment to meet a globally agreed 2°C limit in global temperature rise (CCC,2016). Elizabeth Shove’s work on social practice theory looks to offer a usefulinsight to the barriers of decarbonising households which account for over 40%of the UKs emissions (CCC, 2016). Therefore, housing accounts for a significantportion of the UKs carbon emissions.
This will be the focus of enquiry. With asocial practice lens, the issue of decarbonising the UK in the householdsegment can be conceptualised as bounded with socio material interdependencies(Walker et al., 2015). The materiality of a house and social life of householdmembers is seen to be intrinsically linked as households only become carbonproducing entities when they are being lived in apart from their construction(Walker et al., 2015). An attempt will be made to conceptualise sustainableconsumption and issues of demand-side decarbonisation with a social practicelens has shown to provide greater analytical power as opposed toindividualistic theories of behaviour change (Shove and Spurling, 2014).
First,this will be explored with ‘nudge’ theory (Thaler and Sustain, 2008) in thecontext of the District Heating system that currently provides energy for thenew low-carbon community at Cranbrook. Secondly, following this, I will explorethe issues of governance of conflicting interests that arises due to new green technologiesbefore discussing social practices and the difficulties that it emphasizes forthe decarbonisation of the household. Anudge according to Thaler and Sustain (2008:6) is “choice architecture thatalters people’s behaviour in a predictable way without forbidding any optionsof significantly changing their economic incentives”. Entities of Cranbrook’sfirst phase are intended to promote a lower carbon lifestyle in the communitythrough infrastructure designs that (dis)incentives envisioned behaviour topromote ‘greener’ lifestyles. One notable feature was the deliberate exclusionof car parking for homeowners with the nudge intention of residents to utilisepublic transport systems. This however is paternalistic in the sense that itremoves resident’s freedom of choice. Additionally, this mirrors aspects ofCranbrook’s District Heating System. In the case of Cranbrook’s districtheating system of which EON has an 80-year contract, tensions are apparent.
Residentsfeel locked into a monopoly deal with the energy company as they were notallowed to install other source of energy such as Solar PV. Naomi Harnett,EEDGP states that in the 2016, Cranbrook Community Needs Questionnaire; 63% ofrespondents were satisfied with the energy services that is a 16% increase fromthe year before that. However, differences are reported elsewhere such as Tims(2017) reports for The Guardian that ‘Energy customers locked into a costlyscheme who have no right to switch’. It is suggested that on paper, the schemessuch as the District Heating system in Cranbrook are good news where wasteenergy is recycled and households benefits from cheaper heating bills as theyno longer have to sustain their own boilers. However, residents criticise theirrealities of enormous energy bills and frequent outages – additionally evidentin the local newspaper article by Clark (2017): ‘District heating networkoutage leaves Cranbrook without heating or hot water’ with remarks that thiswas not the first occurrence. The difficulties of decarbonising the UK isapparent in such a narrative where homeowners are ‘nudged’ into the districtheating system default to conform in this environmentally friendly living. AsCranbrook approaches the final phase of development, decision making becomesincreasingly fundamental. To facilitate the crucial decisions, the East DevonDistrict Council encouraged residents and workers in Cranbrook to participatein a community consultation on how their town and community can progress.
The’Your town, your future, your say’ was the first major consultation in whichresidents and workers were able to influence how their town grows. Shove andWalker (2007), argue for explicit recognition of uncertainties and limitationsof science-based expertise and a shift towards strategies for managingtransitions that are multi actor, multifactor and multilevel. Harnett, EEDGPstated that 51% of residents felt a part of the community which was a 19% drop from2015 figures. In the context of the ‘Your Town, your future, your say’community consultation and downward trends such that Harnett remarked upon.Bickerstaff and Walker (2005) state that multi-stakeholder involvement is never’neutral’ as stakeholder’s visions are always shaped by the systems and socialenvironments they live in. Forexample, a principle critique of nudge is the potential “(un)availability of’opt-out’ opportunities and ‘the dangers of incompetent of evil nudgers'”(Reid and Ellsworth-Krebs, 2018:4). This top down approach in terms of planningfor low carbon demonstrates the difficulties of planning for low carbon forexample Tony Norton, CEE stated that as this is EON’s scheme they have totalsay and that housing developers are only interested in profit. In this modelresidents are not a part of the decision-making process and have no ownershipof the scheme.
Although the conflict within the initial model illustrates theneed for full participation of all actors in carbon emission reduction. Additionalbarriers become apparent when sustainable technologies like the districtheating system become entangled with cultural practices. In other instances,green technologies such as solar PV which are implemented to help energy andcarbon reductions prove to not be straightforward (Ozaki and Shaw, 2013). They have shown to have a rebound effect inwhich savings made are offset through other activities such as plane ticketsfor overseas holidays.
This scenario may be evident with the growinginfatuation of technological solutions, such as the West End planning for newenergy solutions in Cranbrook including, heat network interconnection expansionto the France Alderney-Britain electricity interconnector (FABlink) converterstation and solar thermal ground arrays sites (Centre for Energy and theEnvironment, 2015). Systematic failures of these new developments may notdeliver the intended outcomes of lessening carbon footprint but lead to adverseimplications on carbon emissions in other parts of the household. Evidentlyhere the demand-side policies are lacking. Since energy efficiency developmentsreduce the real price of energy services, consumption may increase or savingswill be spent elsewhere (Druckman et al.,2012). Furthermore, through focusing on efficiencies in technology, theprinciple of the strategy is concerned with meeting existing ‘needs’ (Spurling,2013) thus embedding current patterns of demand for carbon. Behavioural changesare fundamental for decarbonising the household as seen through the reboundeffect. Simply the awareness of this is meaningless therefore policy makersmust be attentive in reducing the effects through demand side measures in otherwords consumption.
This is challenging as will be discussed. Inthis section, looking through a practice lens helps illustrate the barriers ondemand side policies in fostering sustainable consumption. Alternatives tobehaviour change programmes such as nudge that do not address significantissues regarding the means people want or think they need to live and consume(Uzzell, 2008).
Shove’s (2003) principal critique is that energy consumption isnot about individual choice but of deep rooted structural processes such asinstitutions, power and economic processes that drive patterns of socialbehaviour. Consequently, “social practices are made of three types of element:material, competence and meaning” (Shove etal., 2012:23 cited in Spurling 2013). In the context of Cranbrook it isevident that in phase 1 of home development, the deliberate shortage ofoff-street car parking space to encourage the use of public transport hadfailed to impact and mainstream to resident’s lifestyles. Palpably we see thattransitions toward sustainability cannot be contingent on decision makersinfluencing residents in Cranbrook to make sacrifices as this was a major objectionby residents. The focus of this strategy was inattentive to the three elementsof social practices that of ‘material’ i.e. the infrastructure, ‘competence'(know-how of public transport or cycling alternatives) and ‘meaning’ such asthe cultural conventions associated with transport.
These societal conventionsof comfort and convenience in everyday life of resident’s override attempts ofbehavioural change. Therefore, applicable societal innovation must question thestatus quo for shifts to more sustainable regimes of technologies, routines andconventions throughout all domains of daily life (Shove, 2010). Phase 2 of homedevelopment has reverted to the norm through provision of more off-streetparking, illustrating the challenges of shifting behaviours to lower carbonintensive practices. Subsequently, in previously discussed approaches of supplyside policies of decarbonising further cement our lifestyles and lock us in acomfortable set of practices thus normalising and standardising new ways ofliving. Comfortin many ways has fuelled a shift in building regulations that has cemented ouridea of what is a comfortable temperature that is 22 degrees. In similar ways,we see that materiality of homes to be interrelated with culture and everyday practices(Walker et al., 2015). The material built environment of the home looks to lockin practices in this case homeowner’s habits of regulating temperature in theirhomes.
The ‘ratchet effect’ (Shove, 2003) suggest that shifts of comfortabletemperature expectations have become normalised through a combination oftechnological, social and personal cultural expectations that is graphicallyrepresented as a one-way trajectory. This further illustrates the difficultiesof decarbonising households as conventions become reinforced materially andsocially. Cranbrook’s residents have the same notions as the rest of the UK of ideasof comfort, cleanliness and convenience through the proliferation of theinternet and TV that help reproduce social norms. Thus, results in a deeperconvergence of conventions temporally and spatially.
Inconclusion, sustainable housing movements such as Cranbrook illustrate some ofthe difficulties that come with building low-carbon, sustainable communitiesand thus one of the areas in decarbonising the UK. However, as Cranbrook looksto demonstrate with ‘Your town. Your future, your say’, the project ispioneering new ways of achieving a low carbon lifestyle through experimentingwith new practices by harnessing the creative energies of community-ledsolutions (Seyfang, 2010). Naturally these solutions will co-exist withdemand-side and supply-side policies as interrelated entities. Furthermore,a social practice approach is appropriate in making visible conventions as itis more attentive to people’s understandings and valuations of what they aredoing and provides evaluation of this (Shove and Spurling, 2014).
Incomparison, the nudge model assumes agency exists- with assumptions thatattitudes of consumption may be altered through persuasion and pervasion ofinformation. Nudge provides a form of intentional intervention to encourage the’right’ behaviour whereas practice theorists do not predict how a practicemight be generated (Reid and Ellsworth-Krebs, 2018). With the strengths ofthese two approaches brought together, it may counterpart the others weaknessand contribute in positive demand side policies for household carbonconsumption. Utilizing both as a form of governance for decision making inCranbrook and fulfilling its ideal to be an exemplar of a new sustainable towninitiative. For example, as nudges are utilized in isolation with slightthought to the wider implications – a practice theory approach may explore therelatedness of the practice explored, considering the wider impact of the unitof study that is of practices. This is particularly appropriate as the nudgeapproach is critiqued for failing to make sense of the complexities of theinteraction between people, technology and the wider cultural and socialcontext (Pinch, 2010 cited in Reid and Ellsworth-Krebs, 2018). Despite all ofthis, challenges of decarbonising are of a national and global scale that thecontexts vary spatially and temporally. With the analysis of individuals(nudge) and human activity (social practices), engagement with these approachesoffer guidelines in understandings and solving the complexities ofdecarbonising households.