The Climate Change Committee (CCC) has delivered another blunt assessment of the UK government’s climate track record, and it’s a very mixed picture. The CCC’s latest Progress Report states that “a coherent public engagement strategy on climate action is long overdue” and that its confidence in the UK meeting its Net Zero 2030 and Carbon Budget targets has declined in the past year, highlighting the UK government’s lack of urgency.
In this blog post, we examine some of the Climate Change Committee’s (CCC) recommendations in their latest 2023 Progress Report to Parliament from the perspective of social transformations and public engagement, which are essential to tackling climate change.
Upping the pace of change
One startling assessment in the CCC’s report is the necessary pace of change required in almost every sector of the economy. It is well known that the UK has been relatively successful in reducing emissions from electricity generation, and this undoubted progress has carried the UK for many years, comprising the bulk of the UK’s 46% reductions in territorial greenhouse gas emissions since 1990. Indeed, we often hear the government using this success to downplay the lack of progress elsewhere in the economy.
But the CCC really cuts to the chase in its latest report. The rate of annual emissions reductions from everything except electricity generation must quadruple. We need to go four times faster than we have been when it comes to road transport, aviation, shipping, waste, heating our homes more efficiently, and in business.
The need for public engagement
You may notice that, unlike electricity generation, the areas mentioned above are where people are essential to making emissions savings. That’s why we agree wholeheartedly with the CCC when it says, “a coherent public engagement strategy on climate action is long overdue.”
The CCC report emphasises that it is crucial that “policies to empower and support people to make low-carbon lifestyle choices are being implemented now“, especially when it comes to home energy use, minimising air and car travel and transitioning to healthier and more sustainable diets. They also state the government’s “overly narrow approach” to solutions currently doesn’t embrace the urgent need to reduce demand for high-carbon activities.
The public engagement strategy is vital because people need to be on board with the policies and societal changes that will affect their everyday lives. These changes may involve costs and initial inconvenience but will also bring advantages in terms of improved health and wellbeing, cleaner air, job creation, and improved well-being – otherwise known as “co-benefits”. Highlighting the co-benefits of climate policies is likely to be a crucial factor in maintaining support for the climate transition, as highlighted by our Net Zero Living report, created in collaboration with Ipsos.
The CCC’s recommendations on public engagement
Here we examine some features of the CCC report and how they relate to public engagement:
The CCC says that airport expansion should be paused until there is a credible UK-wide plan to limit emissions from aviation. This is important for emissions, and to maintain public confidence that the government is serious about climate change. People want to fly, but they also see the contradiction between unlimited flight growth and meeting climate targets. If the public sees airports expanding and no moves to limit aviation demand, they won’t believe the government is fully committed to Net Zero and will be less likely to take action themselves. Repeated research shows that the public wants clear and coherent leadership from the government.
One of the most direct and necessary ways to engage the public is when they make changes to their homes. The CCC’s Progress Report says heat pump installations are nine times slower than they need to be. However, there is an opportunity for people to feel the benefit through lower bills and more efficient systems – providing a feel-good factor when people know they are doing the right thing, with the potential to lead to social contagion.
Similarly, with electricity prices currently higher than gas, this both deters people from making the switch and signals that the government is not prepared to do sensible things to speed the transition. Again, people will notice this disjointed thinking and be less willing to make an effort if they feel the government isn’t helping them to make greener choices.
New fossil fuel development
We welcome the CCC’s clear statement that: “Expansion of fossil fuel production is not in line with Net Zero”, making explicit reference to the Cumbrian coal mine and North Sea gas expansion. Again, as well as the emissions related to these developments, they send contradictory messages to the public and give the impression that the government is not serious about climate change.
We welcome the Committee’s repeated emphasis on fairness, which is essential if policies are to be accepted by the public. However, fairness means different things to different people, and this may not be something that the government can determine. Deliberative processes such as the UK Climate Assembly may help to navigate this, and it’s good to see the Committee referencing deliberative processes in its report.
We also welcome the CCC’s recommendations to: “Empower people to make green choices by communicating the most impactful ways to reduce emissions […] and support people to make these choices including through regulation and incentives. Government should lead by example by visibly adopting these green choices.”
It’s good to see leading by example emphasised, yet this advice from the CCC is too vague because “government” does not adopt green choices in this context, individuals do. So, we would like the CCC to be more specific about who in government should lead by example.
Alternative wording could be as follows: “From the Prime Minister down, members of the government and senior figures in the civil service should, where practical, lead by example by visibly adopting green choices thereby modelling the behaviour that the public will also need to take. This will increase trust and add credibility to the government’s stated intentions to reach net zero and it will help to shift social norms”.
The Committee should also call out examples where such leading by example has been absent, for example where the Prime Minister or other members of the government have taken air travel where practical rail alternatives were available.
More than green choices
The CCC highlights that next year it will publish a detailed analysis of “the role of people in the Net Zero transition”, and we very much look forward to this. The role of the public in the Net Zero transition goes much further than simply making “green choices”, people can get involved as citizens and community members, in their places of work, by engaging in politics, and even activism. Bearing in mind the scale of the challenge, all of these things will be needed.
Our CAST Director Professor Lorraine Whitmarsh MBE shares her thoughts on the CCC’s findings:
“The CCC’s latest report confirms the government needs to do much more to engage the public and deliver the behaviour change required to meet our carbon targets. The good news is that the public support most of the regulatory, economic and other policies that would enable them to lead net zero lifestyles.”
“The UK will not be able to organise an effective response to climate change without a shared society-wide understanding of, and support for, the changes needed. We have the knowledge of how to build and sustain that positive mandate, and we know the public is supportive of government leadership on climate change.
What is lacking is a coordinated strategy to work with all parts of society to accelerate the transition to a low-carbon energy system, whilst building the coping mechanisms for living in a rapidly changing climate. We hope this report will act as a catalyst for government action on public engagement.”