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Infrastructure blog

The UK public wants to contribute to net zero – but they need support

Date
06 February 2024

A new APPGI and ICE report outlines how the UK government can help people decarbonise their day-to-day lives.

The UK public wants to contribute to net zero – but they need support
The government needs to support the public to adopt low-carbon behaviour. Image credit: Shutterstock

The year 2050 – the date by which the UK has pledged to reach net zero carbon emissions – is fast approaching.

To get there, public support and action is needed. But the public, in turn, needs the support of policymakers to make the necessary changes.

To help stimulate this conversation, the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Infrastructure (APPGI) and the ICE launched a consultation on how public behaviour needs to change to achieve a net zero infrastructure system.

The insight gathered has informed a new policy paper, which the ICE published today.

The new paper draws on evidence from stakeholders across infrastructure and civil society, including engineering companies, energy and environmental experts, and ICE members.

It also includes public polling and focus group research carried out on behalf of the ICE by Thinks Insight & Strategy (Thinks).

This research focused on potential changes in public behaviour over the next 12 months across home heating and transport.

The research found that 57% of the UK population is open to change.

Helping the public change their behaviour

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

Responses to the APPGI and ICE consultation focused on the need to make it easier for the public to change their behaviour. It will be crucial for policymakers and the government to support this.

In many cases, the changes will need investment and cause potential disruption.

And any public engagement strategy must acknowledge the diversity and breadth of the public. People must be engaged in a collective social effort to reach net zero.

With every day of delay, the difficulty and urgency of the task increases.

The research also found that the rising cost of living has made people less likely to spend money on significant new investments, including electric vehicles or improving household energy efficiency.

Nevertheless, net zero-aligned behaviour change can unlock long-lasting social, economic, and environmental benefits for people and the planet.

The new APPGI and ICE report makes five key recommendations to achieve this:

1. Provide a trustworthy source of information

Easy access to information is vital to speed up the net zero transition.

While schemes exist to assist the public in reducing their emissions, certain policies, such as the Boiler Upgrade Scheme, can be complex and difficult to access.

Using clearer language and making these important initiatives easier to use would help improve how the public can engage with them.

The public needs information communicated simply and effectively. They also don’t want to be preached to.

As the Thinks research highlighted, the majority of the population wants to make a difference. To help them do this, change needs to be communicated at the right time, in the right way.

There’s currently no single trusted source of information to help the public understand what behaviours will help reach net zero, and how.

A trustworthy digital source, such as a new information portal or hub, would address this issue and prevent misinformation spreading.

This portal could also act as a feedback loop, showing the public how the action they’ve taken is making a difference.

2. Address cost and availability barriers

When it comes to home heating and transport, energy and electric vehicle (EV) companies can help encourage the public to act differently.

Home heating

The UK’s homes are among the worst insulated in Europe. Home heating is responsible for about 15% of the UK’s carbon emissions.

The research found that 63% of people believe improved insulation would positively affect their way of life.

However, asking the public to make changes by investing in their homes is perceived to be personally invasive.

Intervention should instead focus on helping the public understand costs, available support, and potential return on investment.

The tax system can play a role. For example, stamp duty incentives could encourage homeowners to invest in heat pump technology when purchasing a property.

There are also major non-financial barriers to address, such as trust. The public needs access to people with the right skills who can retrofit their homes, service electric vehicles, and install heat pumps.

Evidence also showed that the public would be more likely to invest in energy efficiency improvements if they had better aesthetics and design.

Electric vehicles (EVs)

While many people have a long-term intention of upgrading to an EV, 37% view cost as the main barrier.

Public engagement can take EVs out of their ‘early adopter’ stage by positioning them as the easy way to cut carbon emissions and show evidence of cost savings.

Introducing a tax system for EVs would also incentivise drivers and potential customers through the opportunity to save money.

Ultimately, though, it’s only possible to change public behaviour if infrastructure and services are in place to allow people to make different choices.

Improving the availability and design of EV infrastructure will make the decision to upgrade simpler for the public.

3. Deliver blue-green infrastructure that’s accessible to everyone

Blue-green infrastructure and net zero

The National Infrastructure Commission identified in its recent assessment that public behavioural change should be supported in a ‘fair and affordable’ way.

Blue-green infrastructure (BGI) and public spaces play an important role in enhancing quality of life and community wellbeing.

Also, as more road space is given to BGI, walking and cycling can become more attractive and accessible modes of transport, helping to increase active travel.

Net zero choices that work for people with disabilities

One in six people experience significant disability. Policies and messaging focused on encouraging the public to make net zero choices must meet the needs of people with disabilities.

Public engagement is key in delivering social value for under-represented groups.

Identifying and working with groups such as disabled people’s organisations, who the net zero transition may negatively impact, can ensure net zero policies are inclusive.

Equality impact assessments should inform policymaking to considers how people access infrastructure

4. Create a clear policy path to follow

Inconsistent policymaking has had a negative impact on the public’s ability to engage with net zero.

The Skidmore Review highlighted mixed messages from the government.

So far, a lack of joined-up policymaking has affected the progress of switching to electric vehicles, decarbonising homes, and investing in energy efficiency.

Clear, consistent, long-term plans for infrastructure will support change in public behaviour.

The public also needs the right infrastructure in place before they can change their behaviour.

Public engagement must be included within a wider programme of infrastructure upgrades to speed up the net zero transition.

5. Share information

Business and the private sector have a key role in supporting public behavioural changes.

Organisations can encourage discussions on adopting net zero and, more importantly, lead through example.

The private sector can signpost existing awareness campaigns around net zero, strengthening the consistency of public campaigns and reducing the pressure on the government.

These businesses could also provide leadership for small and medium enterprises (SMEs) alongside the government, as shown by the French ‘Les entreprises s’engagent’ platform for businesses and the SME Climate Hub in the UK.

These hubs share best practice, including information on how companies can reduce their energy consumption and related environmental impacts.

Read the full APPGI and ICE paper

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