Monday’s IPCC report makes clear that we are not on track to tackle climate change, and that profound societal change will be required to meet our climate as well as other sustainability goals. Indeed, for the first time, IPCC Working Group III (which deals with mitigation) has had a dedicated chapter on consumption and more social scientists have inputted to the latest assessment report than ever before. It is also clear that stronger government leadership is needed to act on a wealth of social science evidence to catalyse rapid societal change and achieve the necessary transformative decarbonisation.
This is the clearest evidence yet that technology alone cannot keep back the worst consequences of the climate crisis. The progress we have made so far to cut emissions has largely been down to shifting energy supply towards lower carbon energy resources including renewables. What’s now needed is to radically reduce demand – and this involves changes to the ways that we live, as well as technological change. The good news is not only is this more effective, it offers a range of wider benefits too.
Cutting demand through social and behavioural change can more rapidly and often more cost-effectively cut emissions than developing new technologies, the IPCC report shows. It also has the potential to make huge in-roads into emissions if taken seriously: the IPCC summary for policy-makers notes that such measures could reduce global emissions from end-use sectors by up to 70%. The UK government’s climate advisors have told us similar things before – most of the measures needed to reach our net zero target will require enabling people to reduce consumption of high-carbon goods and services. Media coverage across the political spectrum and widespread public opinion echo these messages.
Yet, this is in stark contrast to the UK’s Net Zero Strategy, which almost entirely relies on technological change to fix climate change, and falsely paints a picture in which lifestyles are unaffected by climate action. The Prime Minister’s Foreword to the Strategy states:
“For years, going green was inextricably bound up with a sense that we have to sacrifice the things we love. But this strategy shows how we can build back greener, without so much as a hair shirt in sight. In 2050, we will still be driving cars, flying planes and heating our homes, but our cars will be electric gliding silently around our cities, our planes will be zero emission allowing us to fly guilt-free, and our homes will be heated by cheap reliable power drawn from the winds of the North Sea.”
The UK’s new Energy Strategy similarly focusses on energy supply and new technologies to solve climate change and other problems with the energy system. There is little recognition of the need for wider public involvement in reducing demand and emissions, aside from an expectation that the British public will “make decisions based on the information”. Monday’s IPCC report shows this techno-optimism is misplaced and wholly inadequate to address the climate emergency. Despite the urgency again stressed by the IPCC, the UK Government instead proposes to set out on large-scale and long-term nuclear infrastructure projects of the kind we have already seen suffer from huge delays. Quicker, smaller scale, and lower unit cost technologies such as onshore wind are not prioritised despite high public support (80% are in favour, based on the government’s own research). The opportunity to insulate homes – one of the quickest of all wins, and particularly beneficial for those on low incomes – has again been ignored. Instead, the government plans to grant new permits for oil and gas in the North Sea, in direct opposition to the IPCC’s conclusion that further investments in fossil fuel infrastructure will lock in higher emissions and make it even harder to limit warming to 2°C. In this, the British public is closer to scientists than is the UK government: a majority want to see the country wind down its use of gas. Fewer than a third think the UK’s domestic supply of gas should be increased through expanded drilling and fracking.
In contrast to the PM’s claims, the IPCC report shows that social and behavioural change will not threaten people’s quality of life – on the contrary, it will actually enhance it because climate action tends to improve health, wellbeing, equality, prosperity and biodiversity. This is something we have also found – people from a range of cultures who have greener lifestyles tend to have higher wellbeing. We also know that cities and local authorities are increasingly recognising this by taking a ‘co-benefits’ approach in their climate action planning and decision making – allowing them to tackle multiple priorities alongside climate action. Governments now need to seize these opportunities to improve people’s wellbeing while taking bold climate action.
Indeed, government leadership is key to transformative decarbonisation; clear, consistent and long-term policy – that enables action by businesses and the public – is needed to achieve rapid and wide-ranging emission cuts. Yet, so far, the public see the UK government as failing to take a lead on climate change. Despite the UK public wanting to play their part in achieving net zero, we lack the structural and cultural conditions needed to support widespread changes in lifestyles. The places we live remain dominated by cars, with public transport too often expensive or unreliable. We can learn from COVID-19 here, where the Government’s actions enabled rapid transformative changes to the ways that we live and work, and people felt that their personal actions made a difference.
People are at the heart of tackling climate change. As recognised in the IPCC’s report, action by governments, businesses, communities and by the public is critical to achieve a sustainable, net zero society. There are various roles people play in pushing for action on climate change – as employees, employers, citizens, consumers, parents, and peers. Our work in CAST supports the recommendations of the IPCC, and builds on these by offering insights on how to deliver change to cut emissions effectively, rapidly and fairly. We will continue to work with private-, public-, and third- sector partners and communities to develop and deliver solutions to the climate crisis.
By Lorraine Whitmarsh, Stuart Capstick, Hilary Graham, Claire Hoolohan, Briony Latter, Angela Minas, Caroline Verfuerth, Dan Thorman, Charlie Wilson – Centre for Climate Change & Social Transformations (CAST).