The gap between intent and action

I’ll be 13 stone and ripped by 2035.

It feels good saying this. I can even sit back, shut my eyes, and project myself forward into the future, where the handsome, svelte me is trying on an ‘athletic’ fit Gucci shirt while my wife audibly moans at the eye-feast she’s receiving.

Come 2035, when I am working my way through my fourth packet of Jaffa Cakes and searching for elasticated denim on Google, no one is going to give a stuff about what I said 14 years ago. And even if they did, I’d have had 14 years to make up excuses as to why maintaining the status quo was crucial.

This is the intent vs action gap.

And, while some may be alarmed at my gut maintaining a steady trend towards obesity (despite good intentions) most will still go about their day quite normally.

But, apply the same intent vs action gap to the climate crisis, and things become deeply unsettling. 

And folks, businesses are literally showering each other in warm intent. 


As I write this, net-zero commitments from organisations have doubled over the last 12 to 18 months. Something applauded by the UN and our COP 26 Tzar Alok Sharma. 

Businesses are falling over themselves to say that at a given point in the future their carbon emissions will be zero, with some gleefully outlining how they won’t just be net-zero, but net-positive. 

Net-positive. Where even as an employee breaks wind, the emissions will be captured, sequestered and put to good use at a future date.

I am being flippant of course, but here’s the fact, while huge swathes of organisations look to make a net-zero claim, sustainability consultancy, South Pole, found that just 10% of organisations set Science Based Targets to back up net-zero commitments.

What’s more, WWF recently reported that just 19% of the top UK companies have emission reduction plans in place.

We have organisations of all sizes happily communicating a commitment to reduce something without knowing how much of that thing they have or how to reduce it. In turn, they get applauded for their intent and undisturbed when it comes to requiring evidence of action. 

We have to get comfortable with demanding more than positive sentiment when it comes to change. We have to go beyond a commitment and look for evidence and substance.

But what if intent is given more than a thumbs up on social? What if there’s monetary value in it?

There’s money in intent

It was found that top oil and gas companies jointly spent around 1% of their 2018 budgets on clean energy. Bear in mind, this will have come after a fair few years of firms such as BP and Shell making an awful lot of big statements around their sustainable strategies and decarbonisation commitments. 

Some are quick to point out that this is nearly double the amount spent in the previous seven years (just over 0.6%), but many would rightly see the 1% as a lacklustre investment given the backdrop of an accelerating climate crisis. 

But, one has to ask themselves, why should big oil and gas companies be moving beyond intent if governments aren’t bothering to do much more than release strategies and mission statements themselves? And what if the intent is all you need to haul in large chunks of cash?

The UK has a legally binding net-zero commitment. You don’t get much more magnificent than intent that can be upheld by the law. But let’s look at the action. 

Today, the UK government is preparing to defend itself against a lawsuit brought about by the campaign group, Paid to Pollute. The challenge? The UK Government’s continued support for expanding oil and gas production in the North Sea is incompatible with its climate laws and commitment to ‘levelling up’.

According to the group, examples of this support include various tax-breaks that resulted in Shell having paid negative $99.1m in tax to the UK in 2020. In other words, during the peak of the covid epidemic, the UK paid Shell almost $100m. The UK was the only country where Shell operated where it didn’t pay tax. 

We shouldn’t be too surprised at this. After all, the big international intent fest that was COP21, resulting in the Paris Climate Agreement was signed by the UK in 2015. Since then the UK has handed over £4bn of public money to North Sea oil and gas companies.

Why embrace action if the intent is so profitable?

The nudges we need

The intent-action gap is well researched in behavioural science – we intend to eat healthily, but we reach for the Big Mac. 

With such an important existential issue as climate change facing an intent-action crisis, what can we do to close the chasm? Well, I have gone ahead and bastardised some of the theory behind the intent-action gap.

Instant gratification

I touched on this before, but it’s imperative that we dial down the praise for intent, especially if it’s missing any evidence of action or strategy. We really do need to address our sycophantic performative nature when it comes to effecting change. Do the hard work first, then shout about it. 

Concrete mini-goals

It’s all well and good setting a long term vision, but, as any behavioural psychologist will say, breaking a big goal down into smaller ones will help to improve chances of action and success. So, by all means, have that 2050 vision in mind, but outline what needs to happen in the next 12 months, and report on its progress

Justified rewards

In absence of instant gratification, there needs to be justified incentives to keep us all moving forward positively. We’ve seen there are plenty of subsidies and support sloshing about, perhaps redirecting this towards fully evidenced action will help to encourage more to take the plunge and go beyond intent?

Real consequences

It’s getting too late in the day to forgive and forget. A recent absurd piece in the FT suggested that we should be giving fossil fuel companies a break while also making the point that in actual fact, further investment is what they need. I don’t buy this. Instead, organisations paying lip service to this global crisis and either doing nothing else or worse continuing harmful action should be made to pay.

This issue of the quarterly has been written just before COP 26. This global gathering is the last chance we have to move beyond agreements and into meaningful activity. 

To channel Greta for a moment, if all we hear is ‘blah blah blah’ followed by rapturous applause, we’ll all know that the gap between intent and action was all too much for humanity to close.

And so, in 2035 as I eat that final Jaffa Cake, there may well be a tear that falls down my cheek to join the crumbs on the floor.

This article comes from the third issue of the DCW Quarterly. Click here to grab the full issue for free.


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