On 16 September 2021, the House of Lords is scheduled to debate the following:

Baroness Blackstone to move that this House takes note of the role of behaviour change in helping the United Kingdom to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050, as set out in the report by the Climate Change Committee ‘Progress in Reducing Emissions: 2021 Progress Report to Parliament’, published on 24 June 2021; and of the case for a public engagement strategy to facilitate this.

What is the net zero carbon emissions target?

In June 2019, the Government committed the UK to achieving a 100% reduction of greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 (from 1990 levels). This is referred to as the net zero target.

The net zero target stemmed from a recommendation made by the Climate Change Committee (CCC) in May 2019. The CCC is a statutory body that advises the UK and devolved governments on emissions targets. It also provides annual reports to Parliament on progress made in reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

The net zero target was enshrined in UK law by the Climate Change Act 2008 (2050 Target Amendment) Order 2019. The Government said that the UK was the first major economy to pass a net zero emissions law.

Can behaviour change impact the net zero target?

The CCC’s 2021 progress report to Parliament, published in June 2021, considered the impact of behaviour change on UK emissions.

Its findings suggested that people and public engagement are key enablers for achieving net zero. The report said that action from consumers, workers, households, businesses and citizens is needed in order to reach the target.

The CCC considered the impact of certain behaviour changes seen during the Covid-19 pandemic on emissions. This included changes to working patterns and transport choices. On working patterns, the report said that remote working could lead to a decrease in demand for business travel, and an increase in energy demand for homes and workplaces. However, the impact this could have on UK emissions remained uncertain. This is because increases in emissions from residential buildings could exceed savings made in non-residential buildings.

On transport choices, the CCC said that behaviour changes could lead to a decrease in non-business flying, an increase in cycling and walking, and a decrease in public transport use. Referring to public transport use, the report said that shifting preferences for private car travel to public transport is important for decarbonisation, air quality, congestion, and public health.

The report said that the pandemic had demonstrated how behavioural changes can occur:

There is a limited window to change behaviours. There are behavioural sources of ‘friction’ in moving from one pattern of living and working to another, but if those frictions can be overcome, people and organisations can often adapt quickly. In the light of the changes in response to Covid-19, there are now significant opportunities to lock in and build on positive developments, especially—though not exclusively—regarding levels of demand for transport. This includes:

sustaining increases in ‘active travel’ by providing support for walking, cycling and e-bikes;

the possible need for active measures to encourage people back onto public transport, where there has been a shift to car travel; and

the opportunity to change the narrative on the need for an ever-increasing number of flights and accompanying airport expansion.

The report also referred to the International Energy Agency’s ‘Net Zero by 2050: A Roadmap for the Global Energy Sector’ 2021 report. This stated the importance of behavioural change in reducing emissions:

Behaviour change plays a role in almost two thirds of the emissions reductions. Most of this comes through consumer adoption of low-carbon technologies such as electric cars, but 8% of total emissions reductions come from directly changing practices such as reduced business flights.

The CCC said it was unclear how long changes in behaviour seen during the pandemic would persist. However, it noted that if some behaviour changes were to remain, this could have a significant impact on decarbonisation.

Public engagement

In December 2020, the CCC published a policy report for the sixth carbon budget and net zero, which  highlighted the absence of a government public engagement strategy. The committee said creating a strategy should be a key policy priority for the Government and suggested that such a strategy should seek to involve people in decision-making, provide trusted information, and educate the public on climate actions.

The CCC’s 2021 progress report to Parliament also highlighted the importance of public engagement. It said an awareness gap existed amongst some individuals about their role in climate action:

[…] for wider society in general, while there is an increased awareness of the need for climate action, there is still a gap in understanding [about] what this means for them. For example, while 80% of people are concerned about climate change, only half are aware that their gas boiler produces emissions.

The report said that the Government needed to provide clarity on how the public can engage in the transition to net zero. The CCC committed to providing recommendations to the Government on effective public engagement in 2022.

What has the Government said?

The Government said that its approach to public engagement will be included in a comprehensive net zero strategy. This strategy will also set out the Government’s vision for transitioning to a net zero economy, amongst other things.

The strategy has not yet been published. The Government response to the CCC’s 2020 progress report to Parliament said that the strategy would be published ahead of the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26). COP26 is scheduled to take place in Glasgow from 31 October to 12 November 2021.

The Government addressed public engagement and behaviour change during oral questions in the House of Lords on net zero carbon emissions on 7 June 2021. Baroness Boycott (Crossbench) asked the Government when the public engagement strategy would be published and if there were plans to reach out to households to explain what climate actions can be taken.

In response, the Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, Lord Callanan, confirmed that the net zero strategy would be published before COP26. He also said that the Government is funding or running 13 dialogues on a range of net zero issues, including net zero homes, heating and transport, and decarbonisation, amongst others.

During the same question session, Lord Oates, the Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson for Energy and Climate Change, also asked if the Government recognised the key role that local authorities should play in public engagement strategies. Lord Callanan agreed and confirmed that the Government is working closely with local authorities in many of its strategies.

In addition, Baroness Whitaker (Labour) asked how the Government planned to encourage the public to exchange gas boilers for ones with zero carbon emissions. Lord Callanan said that the Government plans to publish a heat and buildings strategy that will set out actions that both the industry and consumers will need to take in order to reduce emissions from buildings.

What have external organisations said about the impact of behaviour change on net zero?

In March 2021, the Energy Research Partnership (ERP) published a report entitled ‘How Behaviour Change Will Unlock Net-zero’. The ERP is a public-private partnership that aims to guide innovation in the energy sector to achieve net zero. Members include academics, energy industry specialists, and government representatives. The ERP report argued that the current social environment was not conducive to the behaviour change needed for net zero. It said that new climate initiatives required “behaviour change enabling plans” in order to ensure success.

In addition, studies have shown that profound behaviour change is needed to address net zero.   For example, a study by Lorraine Whitmarsh et al in the ‘Current Opinion in Psychology’ journal analysed how behaviour change can be used to address climate change. It considered the use of behavioural models and the ability to realise meaningful behaviour change. Authors argued that profound behaviour change by consumers, communities and organisations is needed.

In April 2021, a report from the Cambridge Sustainability Commission on scaling sustainable behaviour change, a scientific assessment commissioned by climate change organisation KR Foundation and led by Professor Peter Newell of Sussex University, said the notion of fairness and equitability are essential precursors to successful climate policy. The commission noted that the wealthiest 10% of the world’s population is responsible for around half of all greenhouse gas emissions and argued, therefore, that strategies that specifically target behaviours of the richest would have “vast implications” for emissions. Lorraine Whitmarsh, a member of the commission and Head of the Centre for Climate Change and Social Transformations (CAST) at the University of Bath, said that “policies will be better received by the public if they are equitably framed”.

The report also highlighted a need to focus on high-impact behaviours and ways of life. This includes car and plane mobility, consumption of meat and dairy, and the heating of residential homes. It argued that policies have been ineffective to date at targeting these high-impact behaviours, and any interventions to combat such behaviours would need to be seen as valid, equitable and necessary.

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Cover image by Sergio Rodriguez – Portugues del Olmo on Unsplash.