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Can we do better than A-S-I? Yes. Shrink! Shift! Shuffle!

Can we do better than A-S-I? Yes. Shrink! Shift! Shuffle!




A-S-I (Avoid, Shift, Improve) has become the default framework for thinking about action in relation to climate change, initially in transport, and now more generally, including in relation to behaviour change. I hear it is likely to feature in the next IPCC report. The framework is problematic, though, at least in a consumer context: unmemorable, and, more important, both ambiguous and misleading. For example, is ‘eat less meat’ avoid or shift? And the term ‘improve’ implies consumers can control the carbon content of products, which they cannot.

I think I have a better option, which is ‘Shrink! Shift! Shuffle!’. Actually, I am tempted to add two more ‘Ss’, viz Show! And Shout! But we will come to those.

The origin of A-S-I seems to go back to the early 1990s according to a useful brief from the Transformative Urban Mobility Initiative:

‘The A-S-I approach was initially developed in the early 1990s in Germany and first officially mentioned in 1994 in the report of the German parliament´s Enquete Commission. The approach serves as a way to structure policy measures to reduce the environmental impact of transport and thereby improve the quality of life in cities. In the development community, the A-S-I approach was first embraced by international NGOs, as well as multilateral and bilateral development organizations working on transport. It was considered a worthwhile alternative to the predict–provide– manage approach. The A-S-I approach is focused on the demand side and offers a more holistic approach for an overall sustainable transport system design.’

This is now a mainstream formulation (used, for example, in the excellent chapter on behaviour change in the new UN Environment Emissions Gap Report). And the basic idea is not at issue. In principle, there are three (not exclusive) options for reducing the carbon content of consumption: (a) reduce total consumption, (b) change the composition of consumption, or (c) improve the efficiency of consumption. So: just consume less of everything, keeping the pattern of consumption more or less the same, AND/OR consume less of carbon-intensive things and more of other things, AND/OR (c) consume the same things, but use less carbon-intensive options.

The IGES report on 1.5 degree lifestyles sets this out in more detail.

‘This study estimates lifestyle carbon footprints based on the amount of consumption and the carbon intensity of the items. The report adopts three main approaches for reducing these amounts: absolute reduction, modal shift, and efficiency improvement. . .   ‘Absolute reduction’ refers to reducing the amount of consumption  . . . reducing amounts of physical consumption but not necessarily expenditure. ‘Modal shift’ . . . means changing from one consumption mode to a less carbon intensive one, such as in adopting plant-based diets, using public transport, or renewable energy for electricity or heating. . . ‘Efficiency improvement’ means decreasing emissions by replacing technologies with lower-carbon ones while not changing the amount consumed or used, such as in energy efficient agriculture, vehicles, or housing.’

‘Absolute Reduction-Modal Shift-Efficiency Improvement’ makes sense intellectually, but is no easier to remember than ASI. So, here is my alternative, intended to be intellectually coherent, unambiguous and memorable:

  1. Shrink: consume less.

  2. Shift: shift to lower carbon forms of consumption.

  3. Shuffle: seek a lower carbon version of products bought.   

Thus, for example:

  • Travel less (shrink); when travelling, use the train rather than the plane (shift); and if there is a choice, choose an electric train over a diesel (shuffle).

  • Eat less (shrink); eat a lower-carbon plant-based diet (shift); and when buying a product, choose the option with the lowest carbon footprint (shuffle).

  • Move from a mansion to a normal house (shrink); heat it with electricity rather than gas (shift); and buy green electricity (shuffle).

I know some people complain that there is an overload of consumer advice (‘Reduce-Reuse-Recycle’ is a popular one). But ‘Shrink! Shift! Shuffle’ seems to me a useful addition to the tool-box.

It is important to say that consumer behaviour is dependent on many factors, including the enabling environment. It is hard to take the train rather than fly, for example, if the rail network does not exist. I learned a lot about the important  and complementary role of ‘system change’ from the behaviour change chapter of the latest UN Environment Emissions Gap Report: see my note on that chapter here. The lead authors of the chapter, Stuart Capstick, Radikha Khosla and Susie Wang, also emphasise the importance of cultural factors and citizen action in bringing about both system change and behaviour change. Hence, I am tempted to add a fourth ‘S’ to my list – Shout!

And finally, I personally think it is hard to engage in changing behaviour without better information at an individual and household level. This is not much discussed in the EGR report, but personal carbon footprinting can be very revealing. In the UK, smart electricity meters are being installed in homes across the country, in the belief that better and constant information about electricity use will encourage people to use less (Shrink!). In Denmark, a new app enables people to track the carbon content of their supermarket purchase (Shift and Shuffle!).

Carbon footprinting needs to be backed up by measurement, reporting and certification all along supply chains – a topic Aarti Krishnan and I tried to highlight in a monograph we co-edited  for ODIOverseas Development Institute (London) (Counting carbon in global trade: why imported emissions challenge the climate regime and what might be done about it). There is great work on methodology, and there are many initiatives on measurement, reporting and certification, often backed by legislation.

Thus, pursuing alliteration to the ultimate frontier, we can add a fifth ‘S’: Show! That probably needs to come first.

‘Show! Shrink! Shift! Shuffle! Shout!’ That is a bit of a mouthful. A ‘5S’ approach might be better. Or perhaps just take on the hegemony of A-S-I and stick for the time being with Shrink! Shift! Shuffle!.

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