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How can changes in public behaviour help reach net zero?

30 October 2023

The ICE welcomes responses to a consultation on what the public can do differently to support the net zero transition.

How can changes in public behaviour help reach net zero?
The ICE and All-Party Parliamentary Group on Infrastructure are consulting on the changes required in public behaviour to achieve a net zero infrastructure system. Image credit: Shutterstock

The UK is committed to reaching net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

Public behaviour has a crucial part to play and can impact the reduction of future emissions.

Some changes that affect the public in the net zero transition will be decided nationally by the government. For example, different energy mixes.

However, many solutions will depend on personal choices. These can be influenced directly or indirectly with the right policies.

So what are these choices, and how will they affect the public?

These are some of the questions the ICE and All-Party Parliamentary Group on Infrastructure (APPGI) are asking as part of a new green paper consultation that aims to explore:

  • the changes needed in public behaviour to achieve a net zero infrastructure system
  • what should a public engagement strategy look like?
  • what is currently holding back change?
  • how can changes best be delivered?

The story so far

In its advice to the UK government for the sixth Carbon Budget, the Climate Change Committee (CCC) estimated that over 65% of emissions reductions to 2035 alone must involve some form of public choice.

Also, the Mission Zero Review by Chris Skidmore MP estimated that nearly half the policies in the Net Zero Strategy rely on individual action.

Currently, there’s wide variation in people’s willingness to change their behaviour as a contribution to meeting net zero.

The recent debate around the Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) in London – building up to and since the July 2023 Uxbridge and South Ruislip by-election – stemmed from public antipathy towards the introduction of ULEZ and being forced to upgrade older vehicles to ULEZ-compliant ones.

This topic has since dictated the conversation around behavioural change and a sentiment that ‘watered down’ green policies could translate into popular support from voters.

There’s also a key concern around cost and who will pay for net zero.

A ‘fair and affordable’ transition to net zero

Broadly, opinion polls have shown that rising concern over climate change and widespread public support for getting to net zero doesn’t always translate into support for policies to encourage changes that would reduce emissions.

The public also has strong views on whether governments should decide on solutions or allow space for personal choice.

The National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) also identified in the recent second National Infrastructure Assessment (NIA) that public behavioural change should be supported in a way that is ‘fair and affordable’.

There was a focus in the NIA on prioritising transport infrastructure contributing to net zero targets instead of fossil fuels and new road building projects, for example.

Suggested recommendations to support public behavioural change included:

  • traffic management measures to support public transport
  • reduction in the amount of water used by individuals through smart technology, such as water meters and education campaigns to help consumers understand their water consumption
  • tools and incentives to reduce or reschedule energy usage at times of peak demand

Changes in the direction of travel on the road to net zero

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak also confirmed a “new approach” to net zero from the UK government under his leadership in September 2023.

While no changes to current emissions targets were announced, the prime minister confirmed that:

  • the deadline for ending the sale of new petrol and diesel cars will shift from 2030 to 2035
  • landlords would no longer be required to meet energy efficiency targets on rented properties
  • the gas boiler phase-out target for 2035 has been reduced from 100% to 80%

The ICE has set out that the government needs to establish its public engagement strategy and outline what work will get done to ensure the existing carbon budgets are met.

This includes what detail and long-term certainty will sit behind these new public-facing schemes to support behaviour change.

What sort of action is needed from the public?

In May 2022, polling conducted by YouGov on behalf of the ICE aimed to uncover how easy the public would find it to act across ten areas of the net zero transition.

In an infrastructure systems sense, the easiest areas included flying less and using more energy-efficient cooking appliances and equipment.

The most challenging areas for the public were living car-free, purchasing or producing renewable energy, and installing a heat pump.

The Behavioural Insights Team has also cited the installation of smart meters as a way to enable a more flexible and efficient energy system in a 2023 report on behavioural change.

However, there are potential barriers, including public distrust of smart technology relating to data security.

The rising cost of living, driven by increased inflation, has also made people less likely to spend money on significant new investments.

This affects potential behavioural changes in areas such as shifting to electric vehicles or improving household energy efficiency.

ICE and APPGI green paper consultation: what public behavioural changes are needed to meet net zero?

To get to the bottom of this issue, the APPGI and the ICE are launching a green paper consultation.

This will gather evidence and views on the changes required in public behaviour to achieve a net zero infrastructure system.

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.

Read our green paper

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