On 20 October 2022, the House of Lords is scheduled to debate the following topical question for short debate:

The Lord Bishop of Oxford to ask His Majesty’s Government what steps they will take to support behaviour change as part of the pathway to net zero emissions.

1. What is the net zero emissions target?

In June 2019, the government committed to a 100% reduction of greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 compared with 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 the progress made to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

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

Behaviour change refers to actions taken by individuals or organisations to reduce their own energy use. Examples include turning down heating, using public transport instead of driving and turning off plug sockets when not in use.

2. Can behaviour change impact the net zero target?

Various groups and individuals have argued that behaviour change is essential to achieving net zero. For example, the CCC’s 2021 progress report to Parliament suggested that people and public engagement are key enablers for achieving net zero. It argued that action from consumers, workers, households, businesses and citizens is needed for the target to be achieved. The CCC referred to the International Energy Agency’s description of what would be needed to achieve net zero:

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 government has agreed that net zero can only be achieved through engagement with the public and changing behaviours. Lord Callanan, minister for business, energy and corporate responsibility, has said that:

Reaching net zero will require not only changes to our energy systems and substantial new low-carbon infrastructure but shifts, as individuals, in how we travel, what we buy and how we use energy in our homes.

3. What is the government’s approach to encouraging behaviour change?

3.1 Net zero strategy

The government published its net zero strategy in October 2021. In the strategy, the government said that public engagement, including through communications campaigns such as ‘together for our planet’, plays a significant role in driving green choices. It also set out its approach for supporting green choices, explaining that it is underpinned by six principles. It said that these were developed with the public in mind but that many of them equally apply to green choices taken by businesses, particularly medium or small enterprises. The six principles are to:

  1. minimise the ‘ask’ by sending clear regulatory signals
  2. make the green choice the easiest
  3. make the green choice affordable
  4. empower people and businesses to make their own choice
  5. motivate and build public acceptability for major changes
  6. present a clear vision of how we will get to net zero and what the role of people and business will be

3.2 Parliamentary material

During several parliamentary debates, and in evidence to a committee, the government has set out its approach to behaviour change.

Most recently, in June 2022, Greg Hands, the then minister for energy, clean growth and climate change, gave evidence to the House of Lords Environment and Climate Change Committee. In response to a question about whether behaviour change is critical for achieving net zero, Mr Hands agreed, saying it is vital. He also highlighted that the public agree with this, noting that a government survey had found that 85% of people are either concerned or very concerned about climate change and willing to do something about it in their own lives. Focusing on the government’s approach, he said that behavioural change should not be separated out from overall action, but that it should form part of the response in each area.

George Eustice, the former secretary of state for environment, food and rural affairs, made similar comments to the Lords committee. He argued that it is unhelpful to “treat behaviour change as though it is a sideshow or in a silo, where there should be a bit of government advertising to encourage this or that behaviour”. Commenting further, he said that:

Behaviour change is quite integral to many parts of government policy, but to tackle these complex environmental challenges is a shared endeavour. We all have a shared responsibility, and many of the policies we have are partly about government having a role in regulation to make certain choices easier, so that the public can make the changes we want them to make to get better environmental outcomes.

Mr Hands also said that the government’s approach would be “more carrot than stick” where possible. He gave an example about electric vehicles to explain this:

I will use the example, if I might, of electric vehicles. In my view, it is not the business of the government to come along and force people to scrap their internal combustion engine vehicle, but it is the role of the government to encourage, incentivise and enable a move to a zero-emission or low-emission vehicle as quickly as possible. That aligns with our goal of phasing out internal combustion engine vehicles by the year 2030. During the replacement cycle—the typical time at which you would replace your car, within the next eight years—we want to be incentivising people as far as possible to move into an electric vehicle or another low-carbon alternative.

In an oral question in the House of Lords in March 2022, Lord Callanan, parliamentary under secretary of state at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, also said that the government’s approach is to support people to make green choices, rather than trying to dictate their behaviour. Responding to a question about whether the government had plans to publish a behaviour change engagement strategy, Lord Callanan said that the government had a range of strategies in place to support people to make their green choices. He cited a boiler upgrade scheme and the “jet-zero initiative”.

In addition, in an earlier debate in the Lords in September 2021, Lord Callanan said the government wanted to make it “easier and more affordable for people to shift towards a more sustainable lifestyle while at the same time maintain freedom or choice and fairness”. He gave examples of work the government was doing with cycling and walking organisations to develop a behavioural change campaign. He also said that the government had funded digital tools that support people to reduce their carbon footprint, including the simple energy advice service and the ‘go ultra low’ website. Other work mentioned included grants for electric cars and a food strategy white paper.

4. What has been said about the government’s approach?

4.1 House of Lords Environment and Climate Change Committee

In October 2022, the House of Lords Environment and Climate Change Committee warned that the government’s current approach to enabling behaviour change was “seriously inadequate” and would result in the UK failing to meet its net zero and environment targets.

The committee published a report entitled ‘In our hands: Behaviour change for climate and environmental goals’. This report drew on an assessment by the CCC which suggested that without changes to people’s behaviours now, the 2050 net zero target was not achievable. Drawing on this assessment, the committee identified that 32% of emissions reductions up to 2035 required decisions by individuals and households to adopt low carbon technologies and choose low-carbon products and services, as well as reduce carbon-intensive consumption.

The committee found that while the government had introduced some policies aimed at helping people to adopt new technologies, like electric cars, this had not been replicated in other areas. It also noted a reluctance by the government to help people cut carbon-intensive consumption and that there had been too much reliance on as yet undeveloped technologies. In addition, it argued that polling showed that the public was ready for leadership from the government in this area.

To address these issues, the committee called on the government to do more to help people make changes. In a series of recommendations, it said that the government should:

  • learn from examples of where it has enabled behaviour change, including during the Covid-19 pandemic, and enable people to make the necessary shifts in the key areas of how we travel, what we eat, what we buy and how we use energy at home
  • launch a public engagement campaign to build support for helping people to adopt new technologies and reduce carbon-intensive consumption in the key areas where behaviour change is required
  • help the public to reduce carbon and resource-intensive consumption in diets, products, services and travel
  • use the net zero forum to address the coordination, resourcing and responsibilities between local and central government, recognising the key role of local authorities in helping enable behaviour change in local communities
  • use every lever the government has, including regulations and fiscal incentives and disincentives, to address the barriers which prevent changing behaviours
  • place fairness at the heart of policy design and tailor behaviour-change interventions to avoid placing a burden on those who can least afford it

More specifically, the committee advised the government to set dates for banning the use of high emissions technologies where suitable alternatives exist or are foreseeable; launch a call for evidence on introducing a frequent flyer levy on long-haul flights; and create standardised definitions of commonly used environmental terms which businesses must use to market and label their products.

5. What have other reports recommended?

Other work has also focused on what could be done to support behaviour change, arguing that initiatives need behaviour-change-enabling plans to support them and that policies need to be fair and equitable.

In March 2021, the Energy Research Partnership (ERP) published a report entitled ‘How behaviour change will unlock net-zero’. The ERP is a private-public partnership that aims to guide innovation in the energy sector to achieve net zero. It 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.

A report from the Cambridge Sustainability Commission looked at scaling up sustainable behaviour change. Published in April 2021, the report said that while efforts to address climate change require everyone to change their behaviours, evidence showed that over the period 1990 to 2015 nearly half of the growth in absolute global emissions was due to the richest 10%, with the wealthiest 5% alone contributing over a third (37%). The report therefore argued that policymakers should target the wealthiest citizens—the ‘polluter elite’—to make changes to their lifestyles. It suggested that dramatically reducing the carbon footprints of the richest while building affordable and low carbon infrastructure around housing, transport and energy for the poorer households offered the best way forward.

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