On 7 June 2021, the House of Lords is due to debate the following motion:

Baroness Boycott to ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they plan to publish a strategy for public engagement and behaviour change to support their target for net zero carbon emissions by 2050; and if so, when.

What is the net zero target?

In 2019, the Government passed legislation amending the Climate Change Act 2008 to set a ‘net zero target’ for carbon emissions by 2050. In effect, it changed the target from a reduction of greenhouse gas emissions of 80% by this date, to a reduction of 100%. The target allows for adjustments made by trading carbon units.

The move to a net zero target followed advice from the Climate Change Committee published in 2019. The committee said:

A net zero greenhouse gas target for 2050 will deliver on the commitment that the UK made by signing the Paris Agreement. It is achievable with known technologies, alongside improvements in people’s lives, and within the expected economic cost that Parliament accepted when it legislated the existing 2050 target for an 80% reduction from 1990.

However, this is only possible if clear, stable and well-designed policies to reduce emissions further are introduced across the economy without delay. Current policy is insufficient for even the existing targets.

Announcing the net zero target in June 2019, the Government stated that the UK was the “first major economy” to legislate for a net zero target.

The Government has announced that it will be publishing a net zero strategy to help the UK transition to a net zero economy by 2050. The strategy is expected to be published this year. Alongside this, HM Treasury is also undertaking a review to ensure policies to achieve the target are properly funded and that the costs of achieving it are evenly distributed. It published an interim report of the review in December 2020.

Is public engagement important for achieving this goal?

Commentators and the Government have all mentioned the importance of engaging the public to best achieve the net zero target. For example, the Climate Change Committee (who monitor the Government’s work on tackling climate change) said in its most recent report to ministers that:

The public need to be involved—over half the emissions reductions we identified to reach net zero actively involve people, whether by choosing to purchase low-carbon technologies like electric cars, or by making different choices, for example on their travel and diets.

This point was noted in a report by the House of Commons Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee. The committee urged the Government to engage with the “public and other stakeholders early to ensure that necessarily detailed delivery plans accompany legislative targets in a timely fashion, building in the considerations of Climate Assembly UK”. The Government responded:

As we develop our plans for reaching net zero emissions by 2050, we will continue to engage the public on the changes that are needed to develop our ambitions on net zero. We will listen very attentively to feedback, including taking into account the recommendations of the Climate Assembly UK and the importance of public engagement with net zero.

Climate Assembly UK was a UK-wide citizens assembly on climate change commissioned by six House of Commons committees. It brought together 108 people to consider the question: “How should the UK meet its target of net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050?”. Its final report was published in September 2020.

The National Audit Office (NAO) also stressed the importance of public engagement in its December 2020 report on achieving net zero. It said that the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) recognised the importance of engaging the public and had already started looking into how best to achieve this. For example, it reported that BEIS had established a behaviour change and public engagement team for net zero to design a public engagement strategy and share good practice across government.

However, the NAO said there was “evidence of a disconnect between public support for tackling climate change and people’s understanding of the changes they need to make in their own lives”. It also said that, based on its previous work on the subject, it believed “government often overestimates consumer buy-in to its policies aimed at reducing emissions”.

The NAO made the following recommendations for BEIS, working alongside other departments:

  • establish a public engagement strategy that sets out how government will ensure ongoing buy-in to the changes required by the transition to net zero. This should include consideration of how it will tailor its messages for audiences with different characteristics, including ethnic minorities; age groups; geographical locations; and income levels; and
  • ensure it has data that enable it to monitor the cumulative social and economic impact on different individuals and communities of the transition to net zero so that government can consider whether to change course if it deems the burden is falling overly onto specific groups.

What is known about the public attitude to the net zero commitment?

The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy publishes a quarterly statistical bulletin reporting on public attitudes to various issues connected to climate change. The latest of these was published on 13 May 2021.

It found that, in March 2021, 62% of the public were aware of the concept of net zero; this represented a decrease from December 2020 (76%) but was higher than when awareness of it was first tracked in March 2020 (52%). Other key findings of the report included:

  • Eight in ten people (80%) in March 2021 were either very concerned (33%) or fairly concerned (47%) about climate change (these levels have remained relatively stable since June 2020).
  • Just under two-thirds (63%) believed climate change is already having an impact in the UK, 14% thought that it is not yet having an impact in the UK but will do in their lifetime, and 15% said it will not have an impact in their lifetime but will do for future generations in the UK. Some were less convinced about its impact, with 2% saying that climate change is not happening or will never impact in the UK, and 6% saying they did not know about the impact of climate change in the UK.
  • 83% of people thought people in other countries were already being affected by climate change.
  • 26% of people had made at least one behaviour change to help tackle climate change. The most popular behaviour changes were minimising energy usage at home and buying more energy efficient products. When asked which behaviour changes would be most effective to tackle climate change if everyone did them, the public cited minimising energy and car usage and everyone driving hybrid or electric cars.
  • 34% of people believed the Government had the most responsibility for tackling climate change, followed by the public (26%) and businesses (19%).

In addition, BEIS and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs published a jointly commissioned research paper on public dialogue about net zero in March 2021. The paper presented findings from online workshops conducted with members of the public discussing the net zero target. It found that:

  • Although there was a general awareness of the net zero target, there were mixed understandings of what it meant.
  • There was a feeling that it is such a large issue, not just affecting the UK, but the whole world, that it was unclear how individual actions would make much of a difference.
  • Participants displayed divisive opinions on limits to car ownership and any attempts to restrict freedom of choice over diet (eg reducing meat or dairy consumption).

Overall, the report stated there would be challenges for motivating the changes in individual behaviour necessary to reduce carbon emissions, and that there was “very limited awareness of national or more localised policies/measures to reduce carbon emissions”.

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Cover image by Pawel Czerwinski on Unsplash.