Centre for Environmental Strategy

The blog of the Centre for Environmental Strategy at the University of Surrey.

Can online communities play a role in fostering more sustainable practices?

In this blog Centre of Environmental Strategy MSc student Meg Roper shares the finding from her research dissertation.

There is increasingly a consensus that technological advances alone will not mitigate the environmental impact of our unsustainable consumption patterns and that behaviour change is needed. As Tim Jackson summed up, researchers have long recognised that behaviour change is difficult but that it is easier to achieve in community than in isolation. Many transition researchers, like Seyfang and Smith, therefore focus on grassroots movements and communities-of-place as niches where individuals can explore and adopt more sustainable practices.

Recent ONS and Ofcom data, however, suggests that ties to local communities are in decline whilst at the same time most adults are increasingly active on social media. Despite these trends there has been little research into whether online communities can encourage environmental behaviour change. For my masters dissertation I carried out a pilot study to explore whether such communities can play a role in fostering more sustainable practices.

I surveyed seven expert witnesses about their experiences of running behaviour change campaigns (including their use of online communities) and interviewed 11 active participants in the online community that has emerged around Zero Waste Week, an online waste reduction campaign (“ZWW participants”).


Credit: Image courtesy of Zero Waste Week (http://www.zerowasteweek.co.uk)

My research suggests behaviour change campaigners apply insights from social practice theory to their campaigns. In particular, there is a strong focus on addressing habits and everyday situations, rather than purely raising awareness of environmental damage. They also recognise that communities and peer-to-peer learning can support behaviour change campaigns.

ZWW participants were very responsive to this focus on practices, and particularly appreciated the recognition of the potential of small steps. They also welcomed the use of peers as role models. Interestingly interviewees’ comments revealed that peer-to-peer learning does not result in blind replication of solutions but encourages individuals to explore and adopt more sustainable practices that can be adapted to their circumstances.


Credit: Image courtesy of Zeronaut.be (http://www.zeronaut.be)

When talking about communities, expert witnesses often referred to these as useful conduits for communicating messages or delivering projects rather than as a space where individuals can reshape social practices and norms through interaction with their peers. This view was even more pronounced when I queried their experiences of online communities. The majority of expert witnesses talked about online communities in terms of social media being a useful set of tools for communicating campaigns and results or encouraging debate.

By contrast the Zero Waste Week campaign talked of online communities as a place of experiential learning where individuals can co-create behaviour change. The experiences of ZWW participants seem to bear this out. Interviewees repeatedly talked about behaviour change as a slow, progressive journey that involves information gathering and experimentation and that they find ongoing support and encouragement from peers extremely helpful. More significantly, ZWW participants do not just go online to glean information from others, they also appear to identify strongly with the online community and the shared interest and enjoy contributing to and shaping different practices.

Behaviour change campaigns are often criticised for a lack of spillover, and online communities for being insular echo chambers rather than conduits for change. My research probed whether an online community that supports an environmental behaviour change campaign is capable of producing a spillover effect and reaching beyond the choir of committed environmentalists.

I was interested to hear almost all ZWW participants talk about reaching out (whether online and off) to encourage others to adopt more sustainable practices, building social capital in the process. On the one hand, some respondents talked about welcoming newcomers to the online community and facilitating access to information for them, both within and beyond the online community. On the other hand, most interviewees spontaneously volunteered examples of how they took the campaign offline. I was surprised but encouraged to learn that almost all interviewees assume the role of informal advocate or activists within their family, local community or workplace by organising workshops or repair cafés, talking to businesses about the campaign or simply chatting to fellow parents or shoppers about zero waste and other more sustainable practices. These actions suggest that both intra-group bonding and wider bridging is occurring within and beyond the online community. Although some of the interviewees are natural activists, many do not describe themselves as such but admit that they derive confidence from the online community and that this encourages them to share their convictions and “walk the walk”.

Although my research was a pilot study only, my findings suggest that like communities-of-place, online communities can play a role in fostering the adoption of more environmentally responsible practices in two ways. They can act as communities of practice for environmentally motivated individuals to explore and deepen their own learning process. Importantly the social capital built within an online community can also empower individuals to reach out and act as advocates. Such bridging efforts can create pathways to help move more environmentally responsible niche practices into the mainstream, as well as help build wider social capital.

Are we headed for runaway climate change? Is the future a planet like Venus?

Dr Jonathan Chenoweth gives an overview of the side-event that he attended this morning at COP21.


I have just been to another fascinating parallel session at COP21, this time focusing upon the risks of irreversible cryosphere climate change, with this session chaired by the International Cryosphere Climate Initiative. The Cryosphere refers to the ice covered parts of the planet – the polar icecaps, sea ice, permafrost and mountain glaciers. Climate change has already had a big impact on these areas, with the rate of change likely to accelerate over the course of the coming century. As the first speaker in the session pointed out, while you can negotiate over carbon emissions and many other aspects of climate change, you cannot negotiate with the temperature at which ice melts. This is set by the laws of physics.

In the last 100 years sea levels have risen by about 20 cm. This has already caused major problems, leading to cities like London to invest in the Thames Barrier to protect its valuable real estate. If the Eastern Antarctic Ice Sheet were to ever melt, it would raise sea levels by about 50 metres. Even the much smaller Western Antarctic Ice Sheet raise sea levels by several metres. The ice sheets are held back on the land by the ice shelves which are adjacent. Once these are lost the whole ice sheet behind becomes destabilised and its loss becomes almost inevitable with time. However, Antarctica is made up of several ice sheets, and so the destabilisation and eventual melting of the Western Antarctic Ice Sheet does not make the loss of the other ice sheets inevitable.

The world has approximately 200,000 mountain glaciers. If they all melted sea levels would rise about half a metre. However, unlike with the Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets, these glaciers are responding rapidly to global warming. If global temperatures rise by 2.5 degrees by 2100, then all the world’s mountain glaciers will be lost soon afterwards. Even with a 1.5 degree global temperature rise, most glaciers will be lost next century.

The loss of sea ice over the Arctic is another cause of concern. Since 1979 the area of sea ice at the end of each summer has halved in area and thickness, so 75% of the volume of the ice has been lost. This loss of ice is having big impacts on weather systems, including areas much further south such in heart of Europe. Ice covered sea reflects sunlight whereas open ocean absorbs much of the sun’s energy. If global temperatures rise by more than 1.5 degrees, it is likely that no sea ice will remain in the Arctic each year at the end of the summer, when it is measured.

Permafrost is the other major cryospheric landscape, making up 25% of the land area of the northern hemisphere. 30% to 70% of this will probably be lost – 30% if humans achieve a low level of carbon emissions and 70% if we end up with a high level of emissions. The loss of permafrost leads to the release of carbon trapped in the permafrost. There is currently about 1,500 billion tonnes of carbon in the permafrost – more carbon than is present in the atmosphere. The release of some of the carbon as a result of climate change would amplify climate change by itself causing further climate change.

So with all of these changes, is our future on Earth to have a climate like Venus, as all sea ice is lost and the oceans warm, as the ice caps melt and seas levels rise dozens of metres and as all the carbon stored in the permafrost is released and itself further amplifies climate change? According to one of the presenters in this session in response to a question from the audience, if carbon emissions are at the upper limits of what is currently being discussed, the Earth’s climate is likely to return to a state similar to what it was 35 million years ago. But will we get run away climate change leading to an environmental state like Venus? No. There is nothing to suggest that a future like Venus awaits. At least that’s good to know.


This talk was based on the report, “Thresholds and Closing Windows: risks of irreversible cryospheric climate change”, which can be found at www.iccinet.org/thresholds

Putting Your Money Where Your Mouth Is: Isn’t it about time that we all followed through?

Kelly Boazman is the Operations Director of the Practitioner Doctorate in Sustainability programme. You can follow her on Twitter @kel_b22.

This morning I accepted a leaflet that resembled a dollar bill from a very purposeful-looking campaigner while I was in the queue for the COP21 shuttle bus. I did this without really thinking about it (as many others around me also appeared to be doing) and I have yet to read what it’s actually about. Another campaigner offered a copy of the same leaflet to my colleague, Jonathan, who – rather more thoughtfully than I had done – kindly refused to take it on the grounds of saving paper. Surprisingly, the campaigner looked really rather put out by this and it set me to thinking…

It’s fair to say that pretty much everyone here at COP21 has made a commitment to and is playing a role in combatting climate change; so why is it that the most basic of environmentally-friendly gestures seem to baffle people in practice? It’s not just this campaigner. Yesterday we were visited by around 40 people at our exhibition stand (Hall 4, Stand 26D, if you’re interested!) and of all of these people, only one made use of the QR code system that we have set up to allow people to take digital copies (as opposed to paper hard copies) of our exhibition materials. Others, rather reluctantly in some cases, duly noted down our website but most seemed somewhat inconvenienced by the fact that we were not handing out vast quantities of paper (which, let’s be honest, would likely go unread and end up in bins!)

When it comes to fighting climate change, it seems to me that we all have a role to play: from the individual right up through to academic institutions, commercial and industrial organisations, policy groups and, of course, governments. At the opening of COP21 last Monday, 150 Heads of State gave their opening speeches, pledging commitments to combatting climate change and enthusiastically sharing their hopes for a successful outcome of this COP21. I watched (most of) these speeches with great interest and was impressed at how climate change seemed to be pretty high on the agenda of the majority of countries, (at least based on what was being said). The cynic in me wondered, however, if these leaders really meant what they were saying. I took to Twitter and looked up the feeds of a number of world leaders (Justin Trudeau, Barack Obama, Narendra Modi…) and lo and behold each and every one of them had something meaningful to say about climate change and/or COP21. Then I looked up our Prime Minister, David Cameron’s feed… nothing about COP (although something about tennis and then Syria). How strange! So I looked on the Conservative Party’s feed… just the Autumn Statement. There was nothing about climate change, nothing about COP21 and nothing to give even the slightest hint that David Cameron had shown up for an afternoon in Paris to deliver a speech. Does this matter? Well, in the big scheme of things, perhaps not. Does it send a message that the UK government really cares about climate change, as David Cameron claimed in his COP21 address? No! And that really does matter.

David Cameron spoke about the importance of delivering on the commitments that we sign up to (although apparently not when it comes to manifesto promises to fund £1bn for carbon capture and storage only days before COP21 but I guess that’s a whole other blog post!). It is time for all of us to practice what we preach.

I know that there are many who already do this and that’s great! I am surprised by how many don’t. Be it through disingenuousness or some technical or administrative difficulty, governments too often say one thing and do another. I spotted earlier today a very well-known environmental campaign group’s exhibit stand surrounded by stacks of leaflets and booklets to give away despite the pre-exhibition push for e-literature. How many sustainability experts fly all over the world to attend climate change events? How many individuals leave lights on at home in rooms where no one is, leave the tap running while they brush their teeth after having enjoyed a meat-based meal and sneakily throw their empty shop-bought water bottles in the normal bin because the recycling one is full? When we’re alone in our houses and no one is watching, my guess is that the answer is more than would care to admit it if asked!

Maybe COP21 will give us the binding agreement that we all hope for and maybe everyone (for once) will do what they’ve pledged and maybe the world will be saved. Maybe… Or maybe it’s time that we each made a real, tangible change (big or small) in our lives. I know that this alone won’t save the world but surely the impact of collective small actions has got to make some difference to the bigger picture. Would you give up meat and dairy for a day a week? Would you swap your (probably unnecessary because you’re not a farmer) 4×4 for a less environmentally-damaging car, or even no car? Would you stop buying bottled water? We allow ourselves not to do these things by reassuring ourselves that (i) someone else will take care of it and/or (ii) that our tiny contribution won’t make much difference in the big scheme of things anyway. But it isn’t about the immediate impact of one action; in fact, in this instance the significance is in the fact that we choose to change at all.

Things like COP are great and, without doubt, necessary but what’s the point if we don’t each play our part in day-to-day life? What’s the point if we don’t really follow through? What’s the point if in 10, 15, 20 years’ time we end up, in the words of David Cameron, telling our children that it was all just a bit too difficult?


Food security and climate change

Dr Jonathan Chenoweth summarises the discussions at one of the COP21 side-events considering food security. Find out more about what CES is doing at COP21.


Representatives from 190 countries are busy here at COP21 trying to develop an agreement to prevent catastrophic climate change from occurring; however global climate change has already been happening: temperatures have already risen and weather patterns have already changed and will go on changing. These changes are impacting upon many of the world’s poorest people – people living in rural areas in developing countries who are heavily dependent upon the conditions of their local environment for their food and livelihoods. These same people who risk suffering some of the worst and most immediate effects of climate change however contributed the least to its causes. Most greenhouse gas emissions do not come from poor farmers but from people in wealthy countries.

This afternoon I attended a fascinating side event at COP21 which discussed what can and what needs to be done about food security under climate change. The session was chaired by the UN World Food Programme with input from some high level representatives, such as the Deputy Director of the Food and Agriculture Organisation, the Minister for Food and Agriculture of Guatemala, the Director of Policy and Operations of the Global Environment Facility and others. These delegates made some really important points about food security and climate change.

It was pointed out that much of the attention and resources for dealing with climate change so far have been about mitigation but climate change is already happening. Since climate change is already happening, far more resources are now needed to deal with adaptation to climate change. Better resilience to the effects of climate change is needed and this is what the international community needs to focus upon also. 800 million people still suffer from malnutrition, with poverty, hunger and climate change adaptation needing to be addressed together. It is small farmers in many developing countries which produce most of the food in those countries but these farmers do not have a place at the negotiating table although agricultural issues are increasingly being considered in climate change discussions.

While it was a bit depressing to hear about the scale of the challenges human society faces to deal with global food security, some initiatives that were outlined sounded positive. One delegate argued that development should not be seen to only occur between disaster events, impeding development, but development can occur through disasters. Disasters can be an opportunity to build increased resilience into the recovery process.

One of the key points which came out of this session towards the end was the need for cross sectorial thinking. Projects need to address more than just the impacts of climate change but also deal with the other interrelated problems that societies face. Evidence based approaches are needed – based upon good data and research. Silos need to be broken down and cross disciplinary research and policy development is needed. To me this sounded like a call for the implementation of sustainable development as a key means for adapting to climate change. Let’s hope sustainable development is achievable.

How sustainable is COP21?

Dr Jonathan Chenoweth is attending the United Nations 21st Conference of the Parties (COP21) on behalf of CES. He shares his impressions so far:

Arriving at COP21 this morning I quickly realised the scale of this international conference. Getting off at the train station closest to the conference venue in north Paris, hundreds of others also got off my train and we joined the queue to get on one of the many buses waiting to ferry people to the conference venue. The COP21 venue is huge. It is a former airport which has been taken over by the event and is packed full of meeting rooms, display stands and endless people from all over the world talking about climate change and what we can do about it.

Making such a large event sustainable has clearly been a major aim of the conference organisers. As part of this aim and in order to give this aim credibility, the organisers have sought to achieve ISO20121 accreditation (and this is the first UN climate change conference to attempt certification under this standard). All delegates are given a free public transport pass for Paris for the week, with of course the event organisers putting on the buses to ferry people back and forth from the local railway station. The cafes at the event only serve coffee in reusable cups, with the cups themselves being purchased for a €1. Each time you want a coffee you take your old cup back for washing and they give you a clean one in exchange. Recycling bins are prominently dotted around the venue. Everyone is given a free plastic water bottle upon arrival, with there being water filling points scattered around, so you don’t need to keep buying expensive bottles of water. There are pedal-powered phone charging stations. You plug your phone in to charge and then sit there and cycle away to charge your phone while chatting to fellow delegates on the neighbouring charge points – that is if you are fit enough not to get out of breath before your phone is fully charged.

Bike phone charging  The Centre for Environmental Strategy has a stand in the exhibitors’ area of the conference where we can display information about what CES does, its world leading research projects relating to climate change, and our MSc and doctoral programmes. For our stand we were told by the organisers that we should not have piles of leaflets to hand out. Rather, we were told to provide information electronically – give people our website details and get them to check us out digitally. Unfortunately, as we found this morning, many of the other exhibitors have ignored this advice and so visitors to our stand keep wanting to take away our single (laminated) copy of each leaflet we brought. Most, however, are actually happy to go online after we ask them to.

So, have the organisers of COP21 made the event sustainable? Sustainability is generally talked about in relative terms as people cannot even agree what is absolute sustainability. Compared to so many international conferences, COP21 has clearly made a real effort to be more sustainable than any other such event which I have been to. This is quite an achievement given the size of the event and huge diversity of people present as the organisers needed to meet the needs (and expectations) of high level delegations of ministers as well as humble researchers and environmental campaigners. The organisers have shown what can be done, providing real inspiration for what can be done even better next time.

Guest spot: “SWAG (Stuff We All Get)” by Dr Kelly Kandra

On the COP21 bus this morning, Jonathan and I had the pleasure of meeting Dr Kelly Kandra, an Associate Professor of Psychology from Benedictine University, Illinois, USA. When she’s not busy being an academic, Kelly is a writer and she kindly offered to share a guest blog piece with us. Kelly has been at COP21 since the start and here she shares her initial impression…


SWAG: Stuff We All Get

Will a water bottle make me happy? What about another reusable grocery bag, a notebook, or a pen that writes in four different ink colors? These items, and possibly more, are available *FREE* to those of us attending COP-21, the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change in Paris, over these next two weeks and I have to marvel at the irony of the situation. Here we all are, trying to work together to reduce, reuse, and recycle, yet somehow there’s more, more, more for us to take.

In my opinion, this abundance of stuff is a bigger part of the problem. Yes, we need to emphasize sustainable and renewable energy sources and move away from our reliance on fossil fuels, but those are big picture changes, ones that you and I as an average citizen cannot take direct responsibility for. Of course, we can contact our representatives and try to have our voices heard and I highly recommend we do just that.

But let us also take a moment and first reflect on why we live in a society where there must be a gift for our participation. In a few months when my notebook is filled with notes and reminders, my pen has run out of ink, my water bottle is cracked and leaking, and my reusable grocery bag has fallen apart because I reused it once too often, where will these items go? To a landfill? To a desk drawer where I will shove them for now and say to myself, I’ll deal with these later and then I’ll throw them out in a year from now? I have done that before and, frankly, I’m tired of it and I don’t want to do it again.

So for today I choose to be mindful of what I am consuming and I say, “no thank you,” to this stuff. I am in Paris, the city of lights, getting to meet hundreds of new people, celebrating the advances we have made so far in our conservation efforts, and calling for action in areas where we are losing the battle on climate change. That, is gift enough for me.


Kelly L. Kandra, PhD
Associate Professor of Psychology, Benedictine University, Lisle, IL, USA
Follow Kelly on twitter: @KellyKandra