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UK “Nudge Unit” Recommends Banks Track Carbon Footprint of Transactions, Reward “sustainable Behaviors”

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An influential United Kingdom (UK) based social purpose organization that was blamed for the UK government’s use of “grossly unethical tactics to scare public into Covid compliance” is recommending that banks use the “wealth of data that they hold” to provide “carbon feedback” on transactions and introduce social credit-style rewards and incentives to encourage “sustainable behaviours.”

The measures are being pushed by the Behavioural Insights Team (also known as “The Nudge Unit”) which specializes in using behavioral insights to “nudge” people into changing their behavior.

In a recent blog post, The Nudge Unit revealed that it had partnered with “carbon footprint management” company Cogo to “explore how banks should go about nudging their customers to go green.”

Cogo already has partnerships with several banks, including the UK’s NatWest bank, which uses Cogo’s services to provide a personalized, real-time carbon footprint tracker in its mobile app. Cogo’s carbon footprint tracker displays carbon footprint saving and recommendation messages next to transactions. The messages include “you could save up to 138kg [of carbon] by taking public transport” and “you could save up to 7kg of carbon by changing your diet.”

After surveying 2,007 UK mobile banking users, The Nudge Unit and Cogo found that 40% of users did not support their bank providing advice or support about reducing their environmental impact. The most common reasons users had for opposing their bank pushing these messages were that “it’s not the banks’ responsibility” and “data privacy concerns.”

Regardless, The Nudge Unit and Cogo are still urging banks to “seize this opportunity” by “introducing carbon feedback.” Specifically, The Nudge Unit and Cogo are recommending that banks “nudge customers to take the sustainable actions that people are most willing to take” by focusing on behaviors related to energy, green finance, and electric vehicles and using reward programs and incentives to encourage sustainable behaviors.

Some of the hypothetical pro-environmental offers that The Nudge Unit and Cogo showed to the mobile banking users that they surveyed include:

  • A “special green bank card” that’s made available “if the carbon footprint of your transactions is below a certain threshold” and that would entitle holders to perks and exclusive discounts in selected stores
  • Prompts based on some bank transactions (one example prompt was to save on energy bills by moving to a green energy supplier)
  • A “train miles” reward scheme that lets users accumulate points for using public transport and use these points to pay for travel tickets and other items
  • Specifically designed low-interest loans for eco purchases (such as heat pumps, insulation, and electric vehicles)
  • Free electric vehicle trials

Related: ? The coronavirus response is accelerating the China-style social credit systems around the world

While The Nudge Unit is now a private company, it was created by the UK government in 2010 and owned by the government for several years. In 2014, it was spun off into a separate company but the UK government still maintained a one-third stake until December 2021.

The Nudge Unit’s work became widely publicized when it advised the UK government during the Covid-19 pandemic. Earlier this year, a group of 40 psychologists blamed The Nudge Unit for the UK government’s use of “grossly unethical tactics to scare public into Covid compliance” and this criticism prompted an investigation into the government’s use of scare tactics.

In addition to advising the UK government, The Nudge Unit also lists US state and city governments, Australian government agencies, local UK police forces, and the Bank of England as some of the groups that it works with.

The Nudge Unit’s executive team is filled with former government employees. Its Chief Executive, Professor David Halpern, previously served as the Chief Analyst at the UK Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit. Its Global Managing Director, Rachel Coyle MBE, previously worked for the UK Ministry of Defence as a national security policy, cyber security, and intelligence analyst and was awarded her MBE for Services to Defence. Other directors have also previously worked for the Australian and UK governments.

The Nudge Unit is one of several influential groups and individuals to have pushed for more invasive tracking of individual carbon consumption and associated social credit-style systems in recent months.

Australia’s Commonwealth Bank began tracking transactions and linking them to carbon footprints last month. The World Economic Forum (WEF), an international organization that works to “shape global, regional and industry agendas,” published ideas on a carbon allowance system that tracks personal emissions in September. And in August, a senior executive at the multinational banking and financial services company Rabobank called for personal carbon wallets that allocate “emission rights” to citizens.

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