In June 2019, the government enshrined the net zero target into law, which committed the government to a 100 percent reduction of greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 compared with 1990 levels. In 2021, the government committed to cut emissions by 78 percent by 2035. The Committee on Climate Change (CCC), an independent, statutory body, has previously stated that for future emission reductions to be achieved by 2035, it would require people to be “actively involved” by making “low-carbon choices, about how they travel, how they heat their homes, what they buy and what they eat”.

In November 2021, the House of Lords Environment and Climate Change Committee launched an inquiry examining the impact of behavioural change in the context of climate change (mitigation and adaptation) and the environment (such as air pollution, biodiversity and waste).

On 12 October 2022, the committee published its report, ‘In our hands: Behaviour change for climate and environmental goals’. The report looked at a wide range of issues, including:

  • lessons that could be drawn from successes and failures in behavioural change interventions in other policy areas, for example the Covid-19 pandemic
  • challenges and opportunities of delivering behavioural change in travel, food, energy use and what people can buy
  • the government’s overall approach to behaviour change to meet climate and environmental goals and considering how coordination can be achieved within government and with other groups and organisations

The chair of the committee, Baroness Parminter (Liberal Democrat), is scheduled to lead a debate on the report in the House of Lords on 7 June 2023.

1. What were the committee’s findings?

In its report, the committee referenced an assessment by the CCC which suggested that the 2050 net zero target would be unattainable without changes in people’s behaviours, among several measures. The committee further identified that it had worked with the CCC to calculate that 32 percent of emission reductions by 2035 relied upon individuals and households making decisions to adopt low-carbon technologies, choose low-carbon products and services and reduce carbon-intensive consumption.

Therefore, the committee said that behavioural change was “essential” for achieving climate and environment goals and delivering wider benefits. It also acknowledged the public’s concerns about climate change and the environment, noting that there was a “widespread desire” for action to be taken. This included detailing several positive trends in behavioural changes by the public, such as shifts in diets, purchasing behaviours and the growing uptake of electric vehicles. However, the committee argued that the majority of the public lacked awareness of the most effective actions that they could be taking to reduce emissions and environmental impacts; nor did the public appreciate the scale of change that would be needed to achieve net zero.

In addition, the committee criticised the government’s approach at the time towards enabling such behavioural changes, describing it as “inadequate to meet the scale of the challenge”. It argued that the government needed to “play a stronger role” in shaping the public’s actions, implementing measures including infrastructure development and taxation. The committee also called for “greater leadership” and coordination across government departments and with wider society to effectively drive the behaviour change required to achieve climate and environmental goals.

2. What recommendations did the committee make?

The committee made several recommendations. This included calling on the government to:

  • prioritise focusing on enabling the most impactful behavioural changes needed for achieving climate and environmental goals, such as adopting the use of ultra-low emission vehicles, home insulation and low-carbon heating technologies
  • develop a public engagement strategy by April 2023 aimed at building support for helping people to adopt new technologies, in addition to reducing carbon-intensive consumption in the areas where behaviour change is required
  • learn from examples where it had enabled behaviour change in the public, such as during the Covid-19 pandemic, to enable people to make shifts in key areas of how they travel, what they eat, what they buy and how they use energy at home
  • use the net zero forum to address the coordination, resourcing and responsibilities between local and central government in helping enable behavioural change in local communities
  • provide “clear, consistent and sustained policy signals” to “stimulate investment and innovation”, including setting specific dates for banning the use of technologies with the highest emissions and environmental impacts where suitable alternatives exist or are foreseeable; for technologies where there was clear evidence on feasible alternatives, the committee recommended that dates for final bans and milestones should be set by the government within the next 12 months
  • use the full range of levers it had, including regulatory and financial incentives and disincentives, to “enable changes to the most impactful climate and environmental behaviours”

3. How did the government respond?

The government published its response to the committee’s report on 21 December 2022. The government welcomed the report and stated that it was “grateful” to the committee for its “time, comprehensive conclusions, and recommendations”. The government noted that tackling climate change required a “combined effort” across government departments, arms-length bodies, industry, business and the public. Therefore, it stated that several government departments had fed into its response.

In its response, the government said that the then secretary of state for business, energy and industrial strategy, Grant Shapps, had commissioned an independent review of the government’s strategy to achieve its net zero target. The review would consider how the government’s approach to net zero could minimise costs for businesses and consumers, particularly in the short term. The government stated that it expected the review to publish its findings by the end of 2022. More information about this can be found in section 4.1 of this briefing.

The government also addressed the committee’s recommendations, outlining its actions in its response:

  • Focus on enabling the most impactful behaviour changes needed to meet climate and environment goals. The government reiterated its commitment to meeting its net zero target, alongside its wider environmental goals. It also detailed that it had prioritised several policy areas within numerous government strategies, such as the ‘net zero strategy’ and the ‘transport decarbonisation plan’, to support the adoption of “some of the most impactful behaviour changes needed” to attain net zero. This included committing to decarbonise transport by phasing out the sale of new petrol and diesel cars and vans by 2030 and introducing a new £1bn ECO+ (energy company obligation) scheme to provide support for home insulation to those living in the least energy-efficient homes in the lower council tax bands.
  • Develop a public engagement strategy by April 2023. The government said that its ‘net zero strategy’ provided its approach for public engagement, focusing on building public support for major changes and outlining how net zero could be achieved in the UK. Additionally, the government stated that it would set out its approach to “enabling green choices”, including through engagement, in its revised 25-year environment plan. Further information on the revised plan can be found in section 4.2 of this briefing.
  • Evaluate behaviour change which took place during the Covid-19 pandemic. The government acknowledged that there “may be useful lessons and expertise to be gained from the period of Covid-19”, expressing its commitment to consider the recommendation as part of its ongoing policy development process.
  • Use the net zero forum to coordinate between local and central government to help enable behavioural changes in local communities. The government said that the local net zero forum had been established in 2022 and was bringing together national and local government senior officials regularly to facilitate discussions on policy matters and collaborate in achieving the net zero target.
  • Provide clear, consistent and sustained policy signals to stimulate investment and innovation. The government stated that it recognised the importance of policy signals in driving investment and innovation, emphasising its ongoing work on this. For example, the government said that it had committed to phasing out fossil fuel use across road transportation, including the sales of new petrol and diesel cars and vans ending “as early as 2030”; new cars, vans and trucks of 26 tonnes and under being zero emission by 2035; and all new heavy goods vehicles being zero emission by 2040.
  • Use the full range of levers to enable changes to behaviours. The government noted that it was aware that consumers “face challenges which stop them from making green choices” and said that it had set out in the ‘net zero strategy’ the approaches that it had taken to make “the act of choosing green significantly easier, clearer and cheaper”. Examples of these included publishing new advice on how people can save money and energy on the ‘Help for households’ website, and by “introducing consistency” in the materials collected for recycling from all households and businesses in England.

4. What recent developments have there been?

4.1 Independent review of net zero

In September 2022, the government, then under Liz Truss’s premiership, commissioned Chris Skidmore (Conservative MP for Kingswood) to lead an independent review of net zero. Mr Skidmore is the former energy minister responsible for signing the UK’s net zero target into law. The purpose of the review was to determine an affordable and efficient approach for the UK to fulfil its net zero commitments, specifically an approach that was “pro-business, pro-enterprise and pro-growth”.

In January 2023, the review’s findings were published in its final report, ‘Mission zero: Independent review of net zero’. The review praised the UK for the steps that it had taken towards achieving net zero. However, it warned that government, industry and individuals needed to “act to make the most of the [net zero] opportunities, reduce costs, and ensure we deliver successfully”.

The review made 129 recommendations in its report. These included calling on the government to:

  • expand its public reporting on net zero to improve and increase the information available to the public
  • publish a public engagement strategy by 2023 to increase public engagement on net zero
  • create an Office for Net Zero Delivery that would place net zero delivery “at the heart of government thinking, ensuring best practice for key projects, and taking ownership of net zero priorities where they span multiple departments”

In March 2023, the government published its response to the recommendations made in the independent review. In its report, the government agreed that “decisive action” was needed to seize the “major economic opportunities” that net zero could bring to the UK. The government also addressed the review’s 129 recommendations. These included the following recommendations:

  • Expand public reporting. The government stated that there were many existing mechanisms to scrutinise the government’s performance on net zero, including select committees, independent bodies such as the National Audit Office, and the CCC.
  • Publish a public engagement strategy. The government said that it had outlined its approach to public engagement in its ‘net zero strategy’. It also committed to providing additional details on public engagement “in the coming months”. This included plans to support public awareness through its digital platforms, develop a roadmap outlining net zero proposals, and establish a framework to “amplify net zero messaging”.
  • Create an Office for Net Zero Delivery. The government stated that the creation of the Department for Energy Security and Net Zero meant that there was now a department dedicated to “delivering on our ambitious climate ambitions”, providing a “senior ministerial voice at the cabinet table”.

4.2 Environmental improvement plan 2023

In January 2023, the government published its ‘Environmental improvement plan (EIP) 2023’ for England. The EIP was the government’s first revision of its ‘25-year environment plan’, published in 2018. It set out how the government would work with businesses, communities and landowners to improve the environment and halt and then reverse the decline in nature. Among several measures, the plan covered how the government would:

  • create and restore at least 500,000 hectares of new wildlife habitats, starting with 70 new wildlife projects
  • deliver a “clean and plentiful” supply of water for people and nature in the future by enabling greater sources of supply; publishing a roadmap to “boost household water efficiency”; and tackling leaks
  • boost green growth and create new jobs

The plan also included proposals to encourage behavioural change by the public, including a commitment by the government to introduce a deposit return scheme for plastic and metal drinks containers from October 2025 to drive higher recycling rates.

4.3 Other recent measures to encourage behavioural change

Other recent measures introduced by the government to encourage behavioural change and achieve its climate and environment goals include the following:

5. Read more

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