Exploring public attitudes to climate change and the barriers and motivators to travel behaviour change


  • This report presents the findings from an 18-month deliberative study that has explored public attitudes to climate change and how this relates to their personal travel choices.
  • Following from the conclusions of a review of the evidence base published by the Department for Transport, this study forms an important part of the Department’s social research program to inform the development of policy and communications to encourage travel behavior change to reduce personal CO2 emissions.
  • There were three primary aims from the study: i) to provide a greater insight into public understanding of climate change and how it relates to personal travel behaviors, ii) explore the barriers and motivations for travel behavior change, and iii) to consider the role of information in increasing public awareness and understanding of the issues.
  • The research design included a 10-month fieldwork period with approximately 150 participants comprised five exploratory qualitative workshops, quantitative collection of attitudinal information, and collection of before, during and after behavioral travel diary information.

Key findings

Public understanding and engagement with climate change

  • Awareness of the term ‘climate change’ was extremely high.  However, understanding of the causes of climate change was more limited as was an understanding of the relative importance of both transport as a source of climate change emissions and the contribution of different transport modes.
  • Acceptance that climate change is happening was high, but not universal.  Those who accept the existence of climate change typically cited local weather conditions, especially milder winter conditions as their rationale.  Many were also able to give tangible observations of the existence of climate change such as changes in outdoor working conditions, changes to local wildlife and vegetation.
  • However, many people viewed the negative impacts of climate change as being too distant to influence their concern.  This included impacts observed in the UK.  For example, the widespread flooding which occurred in England during summer 2007 did not notably influence expressed concern.
  • Although the majority accepted that climate change was happening, this did not always mean that human activity was recognized as a cause.  To this extent, some people believe that climate change, whilst happening, is simply accelerated by human activity and would have occurred naturally anyway. Similarly, acceptance of a human role does not imply acceptance of individual contribution.  Even some of those accepting the latter cited the contributions of other areas such as industry and other countries as outweighing their own contribution.
  • Conflicting media reports and a perceived debate within the scientific community underlie such skepticism.  This was cited by some as a reason not to take action.
  • Reported concern was quite high, though some variability was identified.  Notably, women were more concerned about the issue although male concern increased in response to the provision of information and opportunity for deliberation.

Barriers and motivations for travel behavior change

  • Most people feel more willing and able to reduce their domestic CO2 emissions compared with those from transport use.
  • Stated willingness to change behaviors is largely high.  However, willingness to change transport behaviors is consistently lower than willingness to change non-transport (e.g. domestic) behaviors.
  • The key attitudes which define intentions to reduce car use included a sense of personal responsibility to act and the extent to which individuals felt they could act.
  • Crucially, and reflecting the widely reported ‘attitude-behavior gap’, barriers to behavior change identified within the study mean that actual behavior does not reflect stated intentions to change.
  • A wide range of motivations and barriers were observed.  These included attitudinal and emotional barriers (e.g. habit), information barriers, lifestyle barriers, and practical issues (e.g. whether transporting items/children).
  • Relative to the above, environmental motivations are a secondary concern where considered at all.  To this extent many people feel that there is no social pressure to reduce carbon consumption from travel choices but neither is doing so perceived as socially unacceptable.  Indeed, for some people reduced environmental impact is viewed as additional advantage of a change made for other reasons such as cost and time savings, health benefits etc.
  • The interplay between these barriers and motivators is complex and varies according to the transport behaviour under consideration e.g. mode shift, trip reduction.  In addition, the extent to which people base their decisions on perceived rather than actual barriers cannot be underestimated.
  • When considering the range of travel behaviours that can be adopted to reduce CO2 emissions, many people felt more able to make adjustments to their trip patterns (e.g. by trip chaining, shopping locally), or driving behaviours (e.g. ‘smarter driving’, keeping tyres at correct pressure) than changing the mode of transport they use.  Although important, such changes will not elicit CO2 savings of the magnitude achievable by more significant behavior change such as mode shift and car-sharing, which the majority of people are less willing to consider due to the barriers identified.
  • The behavior change activities that seem to be more acceptable have a range of benefits to individuals including financial, time, health and environmental and are perceived by participants as easy to incorporate within existing lifestyles.  Identifying and utilizing these levers in encouraging these behaviors is identified as particularly important.
  • However, encouraging more significant travel behavior change will require greater consideration of identified barriers as they relate to individual journey types.  This will enable appropriate interventions to be developed, which will be important to support communications of information on wider benefits to the individual in order to encourage more significant behavioral change.

Role of information in improving public awareness and understanding

  • The information needs of the majority of people are broadly the same.  Most people request information relating to the underlying science of climate change, potential technological solutions, scope for better transport planning to encourage reduced car use, and national government policy.  The majority of people respond positively when provided with this information in a way that they deem to be accessible.
  • Many people are keen to explore what they could do to reduce their personal travel CO2 emissions and the impact of making any changes.  Although many people expected a ‘magic bullet’ to exist particularly through technological developments, many were surprised that travel-related alternatives extended beyond a presumed call to ‘give up the car’.
  • Provision of information was shown to increase understanding and engagement and did increase levels of reported concern (notably amongst males).  Opportunity to deliberate with this information also increased feelings of personal responsibility and ability to act; both were identified as linked with intentions to change behaviour.
  • Given the identified information gaps and lack of understanding of issues important to climate change, information provision is clearly a necessary and potentially effective step in increasing public engagement.
  • Despite the need for information and the increased intentions to change travel behaviour that resulted from deliberation of provided information, information on its own was insufficient to produce behaviour change in the absence of additional supporting measures.
  • Given the range of attitudes to climate change and the complexities of stated barriers and motivations for travel behaviour change identified by this study, it is important that communication messages target the differing needs of different groups.  On this basis a ‘one size fits all’ communications strategy is unlikely to be effective.
  • It is also clear from this research that the differences in people’s engagement with the issue do not segment according to traditional socio-demographic factors.  More needs to be done to better understand the attitudinal differences across the population in relation to the complexities of travel choices to enable the consideration and development of targeted policy and communications.

Further information

The full report is available from the Department for Transport website www.dft.gov.uk  in the social research and evaluation sub-section of policy research and guidance pages. View report
PSP is working on a follow-up study.

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