Why is public engagement and participation with net zero so important?

CAST’s deputy director Christina Demski has been on a part-time secondment to the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (BEIS) as Net Zero Public Engagement Advisor since 2020. As part of her role supporting research and policy teams to effectively engage the public on net zero, she has written a note on public engagement and participation. This blog summarises key points from the research note (see the report for full references).

Delivering net zero is both a technical and social challenge and the potential to deliver policies and changes that go ‘unnoticed’ by the public is now limited. Public concern for climate change is at an all-time high and this has not changed substantially in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. Nonetheless, this public concern does not necessarily and automatically translate into committed public support for the types of changes that may be required to meet net zero.

The report sets out why effective, and meaningful, public engagement can play an important role, defining public engagement with net zero as involving people in both the decision-making and delivery of net zero. There is also a lack of awareness about many of the changes that are required to deliver net zero. More sustained public engagement and participation efforts could play an important role to raise awareness, promote understanding why changes are happening, and build consent for the types of changes likely to occur in the next 30 years. As such, public engagement and participation may have the potential to impact the pace of delivery, cost and success of net zero delivery.

There are multiple rationales for engaging the public on net zero for example:

  1. Public engagement could be important for improving the legitimacy and perceived fairness of net zero decision-making, developing a social mandate for action, and engendering trust. Legitimacy, trust, and perceived fairness form the basis of an effective relationship between citizens and state (and non-state actors) and can foster a mutual understanding of the roles and responsibilities for delivery of net zero. As such, public engagement may enhance feelings of collective efficacy, whereby people are assured that their actions are not isolated and can create effective change by multiple actors in society working together.
  2. Public engagement can also increase the breadth and depth of information available for decision making by providing a wealth of contextual and practical knowledge relevant for the delivery of net zero. The inclusion of diverse public perspectives and value positions can then enhance responsiveness to citizens’ concerns. In turn, policies may be accepted because they better account for people’s contexts and experiences.
  3. Some also argue that public engagement is necessary for strengthening accountability, openness and transparency. It is a moral obligation to include all affected stakeholders and communities in decision-making that affects them. These rationales underpin legal frameworks such as the United Nations-based Aarhus Convention, which mandates access to information and possibility for citizens to participate in decision making on environmental matters.

Nonetheless, public participation initiatives may not achieve their desired outcomes if they are not carefully thought through. It is particularly important to ensure appropriate methods are used to ensure a process is considered legitimate and insights into public perspectives are meaningful. For public engagement with net zero, this should include recommendations from the well-established literature on public communication with climate change including the role of language and visuals, how uncertainty is communicated, issues are framed, and system-thinking is supported. Finally, it is important to align the design of a participation process with its aims to ensure realistic expectations about outcomes.

Inclusivity is also vitally important to public engagement with net zero. It is important to ensure diverse groups can participate including groups that may be vulnerable, marginalised and/or disproportionally affected by climate impacts and policies.

There are many different ways to engage the public including invited and created forms of participation alongside behavioural approaches. Critically, integrating different forms of engagement into an overarching, systematic and long-term strategy for engaging the public on net zero is likely to be beneficial for multiple reasons. This would build understanding of how different actions and policies (e.g. on transport, energy) contribute to an overarching goal, make connections between local and national policies, and provide a way for people to see how personal actions are contributing to collective national level activities. Evidence shows that having such an overarching strategy and vision for net zero is important for harnessing public support.

Communicating about what government and others are doing on net zero is easier if there is an overarching long-term vision supported by an integrated public engagement and participation programme. People want to see evidence that government, businesses and industry are taking action. This is an important consideration for people to ensure the burden of achieving net zero is fairly distributed across society with appropriate roles and responsibilities ascribed to different societal actors.

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