Behavioral science - one way towards a smarter policy action to reduce air pollution

March 22, 2023

UNDP North Macedonia and its AccLab team embarked on a journey to understand how using behavioral sciences and experiments (nudges) can help us tackle air pollution in the City of Skopje. This blog post consists of two parts. 

  1. Behavioral science - one way towards a smarter policy action to reduce air pollution!
  2. Behavior change activities to reduce air pollution in Skopje 


Behavioral science - one way towards a smarter policy action to reduce air pollution! 

Behavioral economics the subject of human actions, behavior and decision-making.  The field considers that human beings are “boundedly rational” and that irrationality is systematic and sometimes even predictable. Those predictable biases can lead to a great deal of trouble for both the individuals and the society as a whole. 

The field of Behavioral economics combines insights from psychology, social science, and neuroscience with the aim to create a better understanding of human nature and in turn provide solutions based on a predictable rationale.

“By knowing how people think, we can make it easier for them to choose what is best for them, their families and society.”
- Richard Thaler -

Research profiles such as Nobel laureates Richard Thaler and Daniel Kahneman believe that we tend to fall for short-term rewards; that we often take mental shortcuts, get stuck in old habits, and do what ”everyone else” does. Even though we actually know that in the longer run, if we acted differently, we would experience benefits both as individuals and as a society.  

A commonly held assumption is that more knowledge and information will help change behavior. However, that is not always true. To be able to secure long-term, sustainable behavior we need to look at citizens’ capability, opportunity, and motivation for more sustainable action in each specific context. 

Air pollution and behavioral challenges in Skopje

Air pollution in Skopje has long been a serious problem for the health of its citizens. The Western Balkans Regional Air Quality Management Report estimates that about 1,600 deaths occur every year due to diseases caused by ambient air pollution in North Macedonia. About 21% of this burden falls on the capital city. 

UNDP’s survey conducted in January 2017 regarding the residential heating practices in all 17 municipalities in the Skopje Valley showed that 45% of the households in the City of Skopje are heated with firewood, 31% with electricity, and only 21% are connected to and use the central heating system. 

The transition towards lower air polluting practices has many obstacles. On one hand, the population appears to be unable, as a result of the socioeconomic vulnerability, to adapt to less polluting behaviors. On the other hand, there are psychological barriers that prevent people from translating words into actions. To mention but a few: 

  • The adverse effects of climate change can often seem distant to us, both geographically and spatially. It is thus difficult for us to imagine and relate to the glaciers melting, polar bears facing extinction, or coral reefs dying. Our brain is programmed to value short-term rewards and it is psychologically easier for us to focus on things like control over our own income or management of family affairs. 
  • The discussion about air pollution very often boils down to what we need to give up, never about what we can gain. Our brain is programmed to be loss averse and not so keen to discover new things, often referred to as the status quo bias. This makes major lifestyle changes quite difficult for us, especially when it comes to habitual behaviors such as forsaking the cars and shifting to public transport. We do not like giving up things we have gotten used to, even when the benefits of shifting to something new outweigh our old habits. 
  • If climate- smart options are very difficult to achieve and require a lot of effort, our brains, which seek both physical and mental shortcuts, will choose the path of least resistance. We will choose the easy way, and not change behavior. Therefore, the less pollution prone alternative needs to become an easy solution for us. If there is no recycling station connected close to my home, I will most likely not recycle my waste. 
Can nudging be one way to reduce air pollution? 

In Behavioral economics, ”Nudging” was first introduced by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein in the book Nudge (2008). The book challenges the notion of placing too much responsibility on individuals to make the right choice in complex situations and advocates for simplicity when deciding on the right thing. Nudging has the potential to affect pro-environmental behaviors by creating cost-effective and simple solutions that facilitate desirable behaviors. Nudging (among other things), has been instrumental in achieving the following: 

  • By changing the default option for people signing an energy contract, a recent study showed that about 70% of German households in a randomized-controlled trial opted for the purchase of green energy (Ebeling, F., & Lotz, S. 2015).
  • In the UK, the Ministry of Environment introduced a subsidy for homeowners that chose to insulate their attics together with an offer for a cleaning service. By just informing about the cleaning service, the demand for the subsidy tripled. (Halpern, 2015).
  • At Aalto University, Finland, a food-sharing group that facilitated the distribution of leftovers across campus has prevented more than 7,000 kilograms of food from being disposed of as waste . (United Nations Environment Programme and GRIDArendal, 2020)

Between 2020-2022, UNDP North Macedonia, in partnership with the Ministry of Environment and Physical Planning and the City of Skopje, implemented the project Tackling Air Pollution in Skopje, financed by Sweden. Under this project, UNDP explored whether using behavioral nudges can help people engage in more pro-environmental behaviors that may in the long run help to reduce air pollution. The pilot investigated the potential to downscale the effects of air pollution not just in Skopje, but all over North Macedonia. More about the behavioral studies are better captured in the second blogpost named “Behavior change activities to reduce air pollution in Skopje".

For more information contact: UNDP Project manager at,  UNDP Accelaration Lab Head on Explaration at and Behavior Change Consultant at