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How can the public play its part in the race to net zero?

06 December 2023

For our policy programme on net zero and public behaviour, we discuss how the government can empower people to decarbonise.

How can the public play its part in the race to net zero?
National and local governments must engage and empower the public to play a key role in the net zero transition. Image credit: Shutterstock

The UK is in a race to net zero.

If we don’t maintain momentum and go further and faster, we risk climate change impacting our quality of life

Going slower also risks losing out on investment that could turbocharge the UK economy.

The US, for example, has created more green jobs in the last nine months than the UK has in the last nine years.

It’s crucial that we choose the path of net zero over not zero.

To deliver net zero, we need a workforce equipped with the skills and technology to make the transition happen.

This must be supported by policy frameworks that make delivery possible – and the public will play a key role in this journey.

Taking net zero from aim to reality

The ICE held an All-Party Parliamentary Group on Infrastructure (APPGI) event earlier this year with Chris Skidmore MP, author of the Mission Zero Review, and APPGI chair, Andrew Jones MP.

At the event, we discussed how individual choices can turn net zero from a future aim into a present reality.

This discussion laid the foundations for an ongoing ICE project to understand the public behavioural changes needed to deliver a net zero infrastructure system.

Our green paper consultation is open for submissions on questions relating to public behaviour and net zero until Friday 15 December 2023.

We’re grateful for all the submissions we’ve received so far and welcome further contributions.

Responses should be sent to the ICE policy team.

The findings from responses to this paper, alongside further evidence gathering, will be formed into a policy paper with recommendations which will be published in early 2024.

Local government must lead the charge on net zero

Net zero cannot be the next ‘culture war’. It’s a whole-society requirement.

As the ICE has highlighted, funding and initiatives at the local government level will be instrumental in empowering people to make lasting behavioural changes.

Local leadership will play a crucial role.

Central government-driven changes risk prompting a media narrative of ‘nanny-state’ control tthat limit civil liberties.

Past hydrogen heating trials demonstrate potential pushback when national government takes the lead.

Local action will embed opportunities for delivery and net zero much better.

It will also better navigate permitting, planning, and consent issues.

Local councils and agencies have a better understanding than Westminster and Whitehall of how work can directly benefit local communities.

Making the benefits known

Local ownership – of community energy, heat networks, and retrofit hubs, for example – will catalyse the multiple benefits net zero offers.

Policymakers can move on the narrative around net zero by demonstrating the economic benefits and job opportunities the transition will provide.

If central and local governments can clarify the benefits of net zero, they can bring the public on board.

What can the UK learn from international counterparts?

There are some key common lessons the international community shares when it comes to net zero.

Governments play a major role in establishing the early commitment to reach net zero goals.

They provide upfront investment, support skills development, build public support, and incentivise better decision making.

But the Committee for Climate Change (CCC) states that many of the necessary actions are outside government control. Decisions also need to be made at a private household level.

These decisions must be facilitated through effective government action.

In Canada, for example, the Greener Homes Initiative provides federal funding for home energy evaluations and retrofits, focusing on the customer journey.

Distributional analysis of the impact of net zero policies on households undertaken for the Skidmore Review highlighted that decarbonisation can be good for households and the economy.

Schemes such as Canada’s initiative support the public in developing their ‘carbon conscience’ and demonstrate how they can save money.

Removing regulatory barriers

Regulatory and fiscal structures will also be key to driving behavioural change.

A current lack of imagination within regulatory systems fosters a sense of passivity when it comes to net zero.

Duties must be implemented within the regulatory and planning systems that enable the net zero transition.

By creating capacity for regulators and institutions, these duties will foster a greater sense of collaboration and modernise outdated legislation and regulation.

Through engaging openly with the public and supporting and enabling them to play a key role in the transition, we can take the necessary action together.

We want to hear from you

We’re seeking to hear from infrastructure professionals, civil engineers, environmental groups, and other interested stakeholders regarding the following key questions:

  • Question 1: What are the gaps and challenges in public engagement and net zero?
  • Question 2: What previous interventions on behavioural change generally have been successful? Can lessons be drawn from them?
  • Question 3: How can the net zero transition be made fair (i.e. with an equitable distribution of related costs and benefits) for all parts of society?
  • Question 4: What is preventing the public from making net-zero-aligned choices? What can incentivise the public to make net-zero-aligned choices?
  • Question 5: What lessons can be learned from other countries on public behaviour and net zero?
  • Question 6: In addition to government action, what else can be done to encourage public behavioural change to meet net zero?

Responses should be sent to the ICE policy team.

The consultation will close on 15 December 2023.

The findings from responses to this paper, alongside further evidence gathering, will be formed into a policy paper with recommendations which will be published in early 2024.

  • Laura Cunliffe-Hall, interim lead policy manager at ICE