1 Introduction

Environmental sustainability is a critical concern for human societies in the modern world [1, 2]. Although the industrial revolution increased productivity, it also had detrimental consequences on the environment due to the overuse of natural resources and the rise of consumerism [3, 4]. According to numerous recent studies [5,6,7,8], the current environmental issues pose a serious threat to sustainability and make people more susceptible to disasters and tragedies. Numerous environmental challenges are embedded in human actions [7,8,9]; hence stakeholders believe that these problems will be diminished through elevating pro-environmental behaviours [7, 10, 11]. The Theory of Planned Behaviour (TPB) by Ajzen among other theories such as Protection Motivation Theory-is the most often used theory in environmental psychology to explain behaviour in studies on environmental behaviours [12]. To date, the factors associated with consumption and pro-environmental behaviors are unclear or understood. According to the literature, there is a considerable knowledge gap in terms of sociodemographic and psychological factors predicting individuals’ pro-environmental behaviours, especially amongst university students [13, 14]. Researchers have indicated that the role of environmental knowledge in shaping pro-environmental behavior was largely underestimated [15].

Most of this research has concentrated on Western nations, including the UK, Sweden, Germany, and the US. There hasn't been much research done in Asia and hardly any in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), the study’s main emphasis.

As environmental problems emerge, we would expect societies to grow in fear and distrust of large organizations, corporations, political leaders, mass media, and of our existence itself [16,17,18]. Despite the critical importance of environmental problems to various stakeholders, including the government, organizations, politicians, non-governmental organizations, media and other stakeholders, little information is available on pro-environmental behaviors among the public and particularly among university students in the UAE. This study aims to address the gap by focusing on the determinants of pro-environmental behaviors amongst UAE University students and attempts to suggest possible ways to promote effective interventions that encourage pro-environmental behaviors by understanding some barriers that inhibit and encourage such acts amongst university students.

The reason for selecting university students as the focus group is that they are stakeholders in the age bracket of the population who bear the burden of past and present environmental negligence. Moreover, they are most likely individuals to acquire the necessary technical and specialised knowledge to develop practical solutions for altering environmental behavior. Finally, this age bracket is under-researched, and there is a gap in studies covering university students. Therefore, gaining scientific insight into what motivates people to engage in a pro-environmental manner is a crucial topic of concern with real-world implications for progress toward a sustainable future.

Environmental degradation caused by air pollution, excess production of wastes, carbon footprints, and shortages of fresh water is a key concern in the United Arab Emirates [19,20,21]. UAE also has the highest rate of waste generation ending in landfills. According to the national committee on sustainable development goals (2017), the country’s shift from a traditional economy to a modern industrialized nation has been a key contributor to air pollution, an ongoing challenge [22]. According to the Global Footprint Network in 2018, the UAE’s ecological footprint was 8.4 global hectares (gha), which is considered above the global average of 1.6 gha per capita [23]. This high ecological footprint has been attributed to the dependence on fossil fuels for energy generation.

However, the UAE leadership recognizes that pursuing the country’s economic growth and protecting the environment can be achieved together and has taken several steps to combat environmental degradation. The UAE is also on the right track to improve its pro-environmental behaviors amongst the public [24]. Despite these efforts, the UAE is amongst the world’s major per capita emitters of greenhouse gases. The country also has limited natural freshwater resources.

Since there are several environmental issues, the general population needs to become involved to prevent things from escalating and lessen or resolve current issues. In this sense, university students are present and future stakeholders in addressing existing and impending environmental problems. As a result, the purpose of this study is to use the Q-method approach to investigate what determines the pro-environmental behaviors of university students in the UAE. The findings are analyzed and discussed through the lens of the planned behaviour theory.

2 Literature review

The existing literature on pro-environmental behavior is extensive, focusing mainly on the pro-environmental behavior of individuals in multiple contexts, but there still needs to be a consistent conclusion [25,26,27].

To foster pro-environmental behavior awareness and encourage research, various studies have assessed and examined the relationships between the factors that lead to pro-environmental behavior. As a result, considerable evidence has accumulated to show the constructs, consequences, and determinants that lead to such behavior [28].

Although taken together, these studies provide important insights into pro-environmental behavior and the theoretical framework. They remain narrow in their focus, highlighting the need for a more in-depth exploration of pro-environmental behavior research and its implication on policies. Despite most of the research examining pro-environmental behavior from various approaches, studies about university students’ pro-environmental behavior in general and in the UAE specifically is still at their infancy level [29].

2.1 Environmental psychology

Environmental psychology is a term that describes the interrelationship between human behavior and the physical environment [30, 31]. Therefore, it is considered a two-way process, which focuses on how attitudes and behaviors impact the environment and how the environment affects people’s behavior. Studies show that the physical environment plays a critical role in determining our behavior, thoughts, performance, feelings, and our overall well-being [31, 32]]. The research directions are linked closely: the environment is always impacted by humans, and in return, human behavior, feelings, and well-being are also affected by the environment [32].

Governments may set laws and regulations limiting users’ emissions and use of harmful substances. However, establishing an action or behavior that successfully diminishes the adverse effect of the current damaging actions is particularly challenging [33, 34]. In addition, Current lifestyles are directly influenced by organizational and governmental sectors, and they are convinced that if there are changes in attitude, there will ultimately be changes in behavior as well [35]. However, today’s problem is not an issue or matter of the product design, but it is simply a sociological and psychological problem, where the lifestyle behaviors that individuals embrace is directly impacting and influencing our existence [36, 37].

Likewise, such strategies that are being implemented must be examined in terms of whether there is a need to continuously develop new interventions and strategies to promote pro-environmental behaviors, and this is considered to be one of the major challenges to sustainability today [38, 39].

2.2 Theory of planned behavior

The Theory of Planned Behavior (TPB) has been applied in various fields, including healthcare, marketing, and education, and is the most widely used theory in environmental psychology. This theory was first introduced by Icek Ajzen [12]. This research is premised on planned behavior theory as a point of departure to explore the determinants of pro-environmental behaviors. The planned behavior theory postulates that everyone’s behavior is motivated by behavioral intentions, which are a function of their beliefs towards such behaviors [40]. As such, the probability of a person engaging in environmentally friendly behaviors correlates to the strength of their intentions to act in such a manner. Within the context of the present study, the theory of planned behavior assumes that university students’ attitudes towards environmental issues, subjective norms, and perceived control will positively influence their intent of acting in a pro-environmental manner.

The first predictor of intentions is the behavioral attitude, which relates to how a person thinks and feels about a specific behavior and reflects their expectation and evaluation of that behavior. Meanwhile, this can be split into three different aspects: affective attitude, instrumental attitude, and cognitive attitude. Affective attitude refers to whether the behavior the person will conduct is enjoyable or not, which is all based on the feeling of the behavior. Affective factors are general values, environmental values, and one’s attitude towards the physical setting. They include elements like openness to change, subjective norms, altruism, and diffusion of responsibility. Cognitive attitude refers to what we know or the overall knowledge about the behavior. According to Sabri et al. a person’s cognitive attitude is directly and positively linked with their behavioral intention [40]. Cognitive factors constitute elements like information and knowledge about the environmental problems, as well as the prevention or mitigation mechanisms [7]. In addition, instrumental attitude refers to the extent to which an individual considers an action or behavior beneficial or harmful. Meanwhile, there is not always a clear indication, and individuals may have a mixture of both affective, instrumental, and cognitive attitudes.

The second predictor of intentions is subjective norms. This relates to the support that is given or not given by friends, family members, or significant others. This predictor can be split into two categories: injunctive norms and descriptive norms. Injunctive norms refer to whether others encourage this behavior, and descriptive norms relate to whether others in a social group engage or do not engage in the same behavior. The final predictor of intentions and an additional contribution to the TPB is perceived behavioral control. In environmental psychology, control is an important variable. According to TBD, A person’s confidence and ability to perform the desired behavior are significant determinants of their intentions and actual behavior outcomes. This could be compared to the perception that a person can overcome potential barriers and challenges. Considering the theory as a whole, it states that when a person perceives an activity as enjoyable and beneficial, has support and encouragement from others, and sees members of their social group engaging in the behavior, and ultimately feel that they could meet the demands of the task, they will tend to have stronger intentions and be more likely to engage in the activity.

2.3 Barriers

Barriers that prevent people from taking action for the environment are categorized into individual, responsibility, and practicality barriers [41, 42]. Individual barriers relate to a person’s attitude and temperament and significantly influence individuals with weak environmental concerns. Thus, the concern for the environment is overcome by the other competing attitudes. Some research argues that even strong environmental concerns can be outweighed by one’s strong will and legal or compulsory legislations [41, 42].

The responsibility barrier relates to the psychological idea of ‘locus of control’ [43,44,45]. Based on this notion, individuals who do not behave or act in a pro-environmental manner believe that they have no influence or responsibility on the situation. A lack of trust in institutions can be another key barrier [46, 47]. The practicality barrier involves the social and institutional barriers that hinder individuals from behaving pro-environmentally, irrespective of their intentions [48]. Such barriers include time, information, and financial constraints.

Conversely, Manolas identifies the barriers as structural, individual, and external. The individual barriers include ignorance, a lack of environmental knowledge, and overall attitude [41]. Meanwhile, structural barriers may result from a certain elemental design within a building or setting, causing confusion, and misunderstanding among individuals and limiting the possible outcomes. Finally, external barriers may result from a lack of governmental support and enforcement of powerful legislation.

3 Methods

To delineate people’s perspectives, attitudes, and opinions around the effectiveness of environmental psychology as a way of executing positive acts, we used the semi-quantitative technique: Q-methodology. It was first invented by the British psychologist William Stephenson in 1935. This research method was first used in social sciences and later evolved across medicine, nursing, economic, environmental, and health studies [49]. The main goal of this method is to expose the different arrays of thoughts through rank-ordered statements. This would help to determine which area is of high importance, and therefore this is a matter of opinions and not facts [50]. Bias is reduced by selecting positive, neutral, and negative statements from primary and secondary sources rather than focusing on a single group of statements. Meanwhile, the statements entirely covered the 4 × 4 “concourse matrix” even when their numbers were brought down.

In addition, to minimizing bias, this technique relies on a small sample size and purposively selecting the respondents rather than doing a random sampling with a larger sample size [51]. Therefore, student subjects were selected premeditatedly from various universities. Compared to R-methodology, Q-methodology uses factor analysis that helps to identify variations that may exist across individuals [49] while R- methodology uses objective features to identify characteristics among individuals such as height, age, or gender [52]. Hence, the focus is on the views represented rather than the individuals portraying them. Q-methodology was selected for several reasons. Q methodology provides a holistic approach to exploring complex issues. It helps researchers understand the range of opinions on a topic and identify subgroups within a larger population. It enables subjectivity to be empirically studied by identifying clear attitudes, motives, beliefs, or perspectives.

The Q-method is well known to be beneficial in running small samples. However, it does not imply that the results regarding which stakeholder clusters load a precises discourse directly are irrefutable. According to Ockwell [53], the statistical significance of the Q method is based on array of statement rankings for which the sample size is apparently very large. To have a definite conclusion, we will need bigger numbers of respondents from every cluster. Until this is accomplished, we are currently running with a hypothesis on which clusters tend to load on which discourse.

3.1 Steps of Q-methodology

Q-methodology is composed of six phases. The first phase is identifying the participants involved in our research, also known as the P-sets. The participants were identified as university students. This is to find out whether environmental psychology alone is sufficient to get university students to act pro-environmentally or whether there is a need for new interventions that may encourage pro-environmental behaviors. The below table summarises the inclusion and exclusion criteria for this research.

Inclusion criteria

Exclusion criteria

University student in UAE

University student outside UAE

Undergraduate student

Graduate students/mature students

Age between 18 and 25

Age above 25 years

Mode of Education in University is in English

Mode of Education in University is in Arabic

All majors not only students who study environmental related degrees


The second phase is to develop Q-sets to extract and create opinion statements that will address the concept under examination. Supporting statements were collected from primary and secondary sources to avoid bias, thus can provide a more valid assessment [54]. We ran an online survey through Survey Monkey, an internet program that enables researchers to develop and distribute a survey to be filled in over the internet [55], to attain primary statements enquiring both open-ended and close-ended questions. The survey was divided into two parts: Quantitative (demographic variables such as age, gender, year at university, place of residence) and qualitative, which included open-ended questions related to whether participants would change any environmental behaviors, what environmental behaviors they would change and how environmental behavior change would affect the environment. The research aim and procedure were written at the beginning of the survey, and participants’ confidentiality was ensured before obtaining their consent by clicking on the consent box to move forward.

The survey was sent to 615 students from 14 universities across the UAE. The total completion rate was 90%. Immediately after all the responses were collected, the open-ended answers were assembled, and all homogenous responses were organized together. In addition, secondary statements were collected from online articles, journals, and books on environmental psychology and human behavior. The total statements generated were 450, of which 200 were from primary sources, and 250 were from secondary sources.

The third phase is to lessen the number of statements to a practical number, making it easier for the participants to sort the statements. A distinctive Q sample usually entails 40 to 80 statements [56,57,58]. However, some authors argue that 30 to 60 statements are satisfactory to give valid and reliable results [59].

Before the Q-sorting session, care was taken to ensure that the selected statements were ideal. Attentiveness was maintained to ensure the statements fully covered the 4 × 4 matrix developed by Dryzek and Berejikian [60]. A structural overview of the matrix is shown in Table 1. It comprises two dimensions: the ‘discourse element’ and ‘type of claim’. Hence positive, neutral, and negative statements were selected to ensure that the whole table is occupied.

Table 1 Discourse element and type of claim

The discourse group, which is the first dimension, defines the political features of discourses and it includes the following:

  1. 1)

    Ontology: “refers to a set of entities such as classes, individuals, nations, and states” [61].

  2. 2)

    Agency: “refers to degrees of agency of these entities” [61].

  3. 3)

    Motivation: “refers to self-interest and/or public-spiritedness” [61].

  4. 4)

    Relationships: “refer to natural and unnatural relationships mainly taken for granted” [61] and include groups based on gender, age, social class, wealth, and education.

The second dimension, known as the type of claim, states the diverse claims that can be encountered in a discussion, and it includes the following:

  1. 5)

    Definitive: “reflects the meaning of terms” [61].

  2. 6)

    Designative: “reflects a concerning issue of fact” [61].

  3. 7)

    Evaluative: “reflects expressions of the worth of something” [61].

  4. 8)

    Advocative: “reflects something that should or should not exist” [61].

An example of a relationship-advocative statement would be statement 30 in table 2: ‘there should be a greater harmony between humanity and nature’. An example of an ontological-designative statement would be statement 26: ‘Behavior change is considered to be very costly, and motivations make little difference in the overall environmental outcome’. An example of a motivation-evaluative statement would be statement 38: ‘Change can be achieved through our own behaviors’. Finally, an example of an agency-definitive statement would be statement 1: ‘A pro-environmental behavior is defined as to intentionally work towards minimization of one's actions that may negatively impact the environment’. Utilizing the above technique, we examined all 450 statements to remove similarities and duplications. After this filtering, we were left with 57 statements, which set up the foundation of Q-sorts.

Table 2 Q-statements arranged by normalized factor score

In the fourth phase, participants were asked to rank the statements based on their agreement or disagreement with the specific statement. ‘Q-sort’ is referred to as the statements scored by individuals, according to their extent of agreement or disagreement [62,63,64]. A satisfaction scale was used consisting of a nine-point scale that ranges from − 4 (mostly disagree) to + 4 (mostly agree). A participant may agree or disagree with all statements, yet a ranking is still viable. A small scale was used to avoid confusion when scoring statements. To make the process as simple as possible, participants were required to score the statements based on their honest personal preferences. A forced distribution of scores was avoided as its duration is lengthy and arduous. The online survey was conducted during January–February 2020. Meanwhile, secondary source statements were collected between April–May 2020. Finally, primary, and secondary statements were selected and narrowed down throughout June-July 2020.

As opposed to other appraisal methods, Q-methodology does not require an immense cluster of respondents. Yet, its commonly used on a sample size of 12–40 individuals, which is sufficient to produce significant results [61, 62, 65]. However, Kirschbaum et al. suggest that the typical sample size for Q method should be between 40 and 80 respondents [57]. In addition, we ensured to have a cross sectional sample that covers 14 universities of the UAE. There was a total of 50 students who scored completely the 57 statements of the Q-methodology that was sent to them via email.

In the fifth phase, PQ Method 2.35 was used to analyze the completed Q-sorts from all participants [56, 61]. Inverted or by-person factor analysis is led by the software, which identifies similar or shared variances-in other words similarities- between the sorting patterns of respondents. The researchers followed the literature for various extractions and followed centroid extraction. Varimax rotation was used, allowing the factors to become understandable. Extraction and rotation generated several factors—grouping participants with similar responses together. Factor grouping was considered for those with Eigenvalues > 1, with at least two statistically significant participant Q-sorts loaded onto each factor [60, 62]. This is calculated by using the equation of 2.58(1√N), where N is the number of statements used, and this would be at a significance level of P < 0.01. For this research, a significant factor loading would be equal to or greater than 2.58(1√57), which yields 0.34. The “ideal Q-sorts” are the factors extracted around which all the closest Q-sorts are congregated. The resulting factors represent common patterns of responses across the participants and describe the discourses. Moreover, upon the analytical discretion of the researchers, it was decided that to represent the data best, we end up with five factors or discourses. The last step was to interpret the 5 factors to display the discourses revealed.

4 Results

From the quantitative information of the survey, we obtained the following results. Ages of students ranged from 18 to 25 years old. 233 students (42.6%) were males, and 314 students (57.4%) were females. 200 (36.5%) were students studying Sciences 178 students (32.5%) were studying Arts, 69 (12.7%) students were studying Engineering, and 100 (18.3%) students were studying Environmental related studies.

Five discourses (A–E) with an eigenvalue greater than 1.0 and at least two participants loading significantly on them were identified by analysing the software outputs. Each of the five discourses explains a specific factor extracted by the statistical procedure.

4.1 Discourse A: behavioral change and positive attitudes leads to pro-environmental behaviors more than formal education

Discourse A has 19 significantly loading participants and it explains 16% of the study variance.

Strong agreements are present in 17, 36, 38, 41, 48, 52, 53, 54, & 56. Other important statements that show strong disagreements are in 9, 18, 19, 20, 22, 26, 27, 45, & 57. Respondents believe increasing knowledge and awareness may lead to pro-environmental behaviors (18). Many environmental problems are rooted in human behavior and can thus be solved by understanding behaviors (53). Behavioral change is a cost-effective method, and it would make a big difference in the overall environmental outcomes (26). To ensure pro-environmental behaviors, positive attitudes must be increased (18). Education and technology play a significant role in increasing awareness (9, 17). However, higher education may not have a significant impact on environmental awareness (19). For instance, educating people about various environmental issues would not automatically result in pro-environmental behaviors (22). Environmental campaigns are an effective way to promote pro-environmental behaviors among individuals (56). Participants also think that pro-environmental behaviors are more attractive when positive consequences are attached to them (57).

4.2 Discourse B: experiential learning, campaigns, and better interaction with nature more than formal education influence pro-environmental behaviors

Discourse B has 17 significantly loading participants, and it explains 11% of the study variance.

Strong agreements are present in 5, 7, 24, 30, 33, and 41. Other important statements that show strong disagreements are in 9, 19, 23, 45, 56. Various environmental problems threaten environmental sustainability, and many of these problems are rooted in human behaviors (5). Behavioral control should not have internal skills and external pressure (23). People’s attitudes tend to change over time (41), and younger people are less concerned about the environment than older people (45). There should be plans to create more harmony between humanity and nature (30). Creating incentives and rewarding people for recycling encourages them to keep doing it (24). In addition, field trips and other direct experiences are essential in creating deeper affection or connection with the environment (7). Learning about environmental problems in schools has a direct positive influence on attitudes (33). However, education by itself is not an effective approach to promoting pro-environmental behaviors (9). For instance, individuals with high education levels are not likely to behave in an environmentally friendly manner than those who are less educated (19). Environmental campaigns are an effective way of promoting pro-environmental behaviors among individuals (56).

4.3 Discourse C: attitudes are not enough. Human–environment interactions are complex, and there is a need for economic policies

Discourse C has 9 significantly loading participants, and it explains 7% of the study variance.

Strong agreements are present in 3, 20, 26, 28, 31, 43, 48, 53, 56. Other important statements that show strong disagreements are in 4, 8, 10, 19, 22, 25, 34, 39, 52. On the other hand, behavior change is very costly, and motivations make little difference in the overall environmental outcomes (26). Economic factors have a strong influence on people’s decisions and behaviors (31). However, environmental behaviors in workplaces do not significantly impact the organizational cost savings (52). Attitude is not seen as pivotal to predicting and describing human behavior (8). Consumer awareness of the consequences and the need for pro-environmental behavior is not a strong determinant of intention to behave in a pro-environmental manner (25). In addition, there is a huge gap between the possession of environmental knowledge and environmental awareness (20). For instance, educating people about various environmental issues would not automatically result in pro-environmental behaviors (22). Environmental policies are not focusing on green products (39). Protection of environment and sustainable development should be key topics that should receive great attention from the UAE Government (10). Environmental campaigns are considered ineffective in promoting pro-environmental behaviors among individuals (56).

4.4 Discourse D: relations between knowledge and attitude

Discourse D has 6 significantly loading participants, and it explains 5% of the study variance.

Strong agreements are present in 2, 3, 5, 7, 9, 10, 15, 22, and 48. Other important statements that show strong disagreements are in 4, 11, 13, 17, 21, 30, 33, 44, and 45. Environmental knowledge is a subcategory of environmental awareness (2). There is an interrelationship between the environment and human behavior (3). Various environmental problems threaten environmental sustainability and many of these problems are rooted in human behavior (5). Concerns for environmental issues are important drivers of sustainable and pro-environmental behaviors (15). Education is not an effective approach in promoting pro-environmental behaviors (9). However, direct experiences such as field trips and others are essential in creating a deeper affection or connection with the environment (7). Protection of the environment and sustainable development are key topics that receive great attention from the UAE Government (10). Technology may solve our environmental problems in the long run (17).

4.5 Discourse E: the role of formal education, economic incentives, and government towards the environment

Discourse D has 6 significantly loading participants, and it explains 6% of the study variance.

Strong agreements are present in 1, 20, 24, 26, 27, 35, 36, 41 & 54. Other important statements that show strong disagreements are in 6, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 33, 43 & 51. Formal education is an effective approach in promoting pro-environmental behaviors (9). More emphasis should be given to environmental education (EE) in primary and secondary schools, preferably as a subject on its own (54). Knowledge itself might not be an answer since there is a huge gap between the possession of environmental knowledge and environmental awareness (20). In addition, an increase in knowledge and awareness may not lead to pro-environmental behaviors (27).

Behavior change is very costly, and motivations make little difference in the overall environmental outcome (26). People may not act pro-environmentally when they feel a moral obligation to do so (12). In addition, the habits of workers cannot be changed by others acting pro-environmentally in the same organization (51). Therefore, economic incentives such as rewarding people for recycling encourage them to keep doing it (24). The government should make protection of environment and sustainable development a key topic (10).

5 Discussion

The objective of this study is to highlight discourses on the effectiveness of interventions to pursue positive acts toward the environment. The Q-method revealed five discourses related to (1) behavioral change and positive attitudes leads to pro-environmental behaviors more than formal education; (2) experiential learning, campaigns, and better interaction with nature more than formal education influence pro-environmental behaviors; (3) attitudes are not enough. Human–environment interactions are complex, and there is a need for economic policies; (4) relations between knowledge and attitude; and (5) role of formal education, economic incentives, and government towards the environment.

The discourses show that various environmental problems are fixed in human behavior and can thus be solved by understanding behaviors. Hence, to encourage more positive actions towards the environment more efforts are needed to understand what would lead us to change our behavior towards the environment. It is important to create more interactions between humans and the environment through experiential learning programs. Absence of education, awareness, and any relevant information will not help in behavioral change. Providing role models to observe can facilitate adopting pro-environmental behaviors.

Moreover, there is a need for external incentives and policies to encourage behavioral change toward the environment. This discourse is in line with the instrumental component of the theory of planned behavior. Interventions need to be designed in a way to demonstrate benefits, such as economic rewards for recycling. In addition, local government policies should be formulated to provide control mechanisms for unsustainable environmental practices, such as driving gas-powered SUVs and trucks. Incentives have always motivated individuals to engage in desired behaviors. This finding is aligned with international studies of Keshavarz and Karami [66] and Rainear and Christensen [67].

The discourses also discussed the relationship between knowledge and attitude. This is aligned with the cognitive attitude component of the theory of planned behavior. Knowledge-driven interventions need to be structured as direct and experiential learning activities. Hence, providing information that contains reasons for performing specific behaviors helps in achieving results. This finding has also been documented in other international studies Bubeck et al. [68], and Rainear and Christensen [67].

There is a need for interventions that are initiated and may be mandated by local governments. Local governments are encouraged to put environmental protection among their top priorities. Moreover, they need to follow steps by mandating policies and programs to protect the environment. Examples of these programs include introducing formal environmental awareness education in local schools. These courses need to be part of the primary and secondary education curriculum. Universities are the perfect place for students to learn and discuss environmental and sustainability issue. It can be a platform to encourage students to behave more sustainably [69, 70]

Many studies emerged explain environmental behaviors amongst students throughout the world [70,71,72]. Yet, none of these studies focused on the UAE in particular. A review of these studies has confirmed that the findings of this study in the UAE is aligned to international findings concerning determinants of university students’ pro environmental behavior. Research confirmed that TBP is the prevalent theory that explains pro environmental behaviors amongst the public. Although it is a widely used framework, yet most of its applications have been in developed countries and very little in developing countries. Hence, this research identifies the factors affecting the pro environmental behaviors of university students in the UAE based on the Theory of Planned Behavior which is a valid psychological-social model and Q methodology which has been integrated into the methodology of identifying pro environmental behaviors for the first time. Q methodology which is a robust method investigated the students’ perspectives on pro environmental behavior and identified discourses that were aligned to other international research with the same theme.

Comparing the findings with peer reviewed papers on pro environmental behaviors confirms that the findings of this research are valid and is similar regardless the geographical location of students. One of the aims of this study is to try and inform stakeholders to discover methods that will promote pro environmental behaviors. From the findings of this study these methods can be preliminary action plans for decision makers such as Ministry of Education that integrates environmental studies into school and university curriculum as a science elective class, or Ministry of Climate Change and Environment conducting awareness campaigns targeting public or creating incentive or reward schemes for pro environmental behaviors. These methods are elucidated from the discourses in this research.

The findings concur with recent studies that emphasize the power of attitude to change behaviors toward the environment more than motivation [73]. The environment we live in is a sophisticated symbiotic system. Currently, many studies focus solely on one behavioural agent. There are very few studies that combine several stakeholders from the same symbiotic system into a single research framework. Different stakeholders could pursue values differently and have different interests. This may have an impact on stakeholder cooperation and trust, which may eventually have an impact on the achievement of the overall environmental protection goal. Involving young individuals in environmental activities, whether through education, experiments, awareness mass campaigns and proving role models will lead to the development of sustainable pro-environmental behaviour and future environmental contributions.

This study contributes to the literature body by elucidating discourses that help alleviate pro- environmental behaviors. It calls for steps to increase people's understanding of the need for environmental protection, the right of organisms to life, the effects of environmental degradation on public health, and the increasing obligation of various industries and businesses to uphold environmental principles. Considering economic and social incentives to boost people's feeling of self-efficacy can also assist in enhancing the likelihood of environmental behaviours in society.

This study positions itself within the UAE's proactive position on climate change and sustainability, highlighting the nation's commitment through hosting international conventions such as International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) and COP28. It emphasizes the need for integrated policies, innovation, and expertise while focusing on the interplay of public attitudes considering upcoming events like COP28. However, it is important to acknowledge existing gaps, such as integrating policies and strengthening expertise and workforce. These gaps signify areas where our study aims to contribute by examining the interplay between behaviors and environmental concerns, particularly considering the upcoming COP28 meeting and the heightened attention towards SDGs in the UAE. To address these gaps, our research aims to contribute valuable insights to align environmental concerns and practical actions, further advancing the UAE's global sustainability efforts [74].

6 Conclusion

The paper elucidates interventions that might impact changing behaviors towards the environment among university students. The issue is not straightforward. More than one intervention is needed to provoke the needed change. These interventions call for a harmony between humans and the environment. Local governments should institute formal environmental education in primary and secondary educations. Relying on moral obligation is not enough. Local governments should develop policies that promote environmental awareness, incentivize recycling and other pro-environmental habits, and run environmental campaigns. Promoting and supporting direct experiences such as field trips would increase human affection for the environment, thus changing the behavior towards the environment. This study addresses the attitudes of university students, which is very important since they will become the leaders of society in one or two decades. However, additional studies should expand the discussion to include the other social groups who have a role in protecting the environment in the UAE. Future studies in the UAE can also attempt to compare the pro-environmental behavior of respondents by comparing school students to university students, gender, year of university level and major of specialization. To expand on the research, a comparative study might proof interesting between countries in the Gulf region to assess whether there are any differences in pro environmental behaviors of university students in the Gulf region and this might serve as a framework for actions for the stakeholders in the Gulf.

It is commonly known that the Q-method is useful when analyzing small samples. It does not, however, imply that the findings about how stakeholder groupings directly load a discourse are unchallengeable. The statistical significance of the Q approach is based on a variety of statement rankings, for which the sample size appears to be very big. We will require more respondents from each cluster in order to draw a firm conclusion. Until this is achieved, currently, this paper’s findings are under the assumption that certain clusters tend to load on particular discourses.