Meeting the UK’s net zero targets requires rapid, society-wide transformations of how we live. The public must be fully invested in this. While innovations such as electric cars, heat pumps and perhaps carbon capture and storage will have an important role to play, they will not be sufficient. Significant lifestyle changes are also needed in the way we travel, what we eat, and how we heat our homes. This makes things very tricky for politicians and other policymakers, who must advance the necessary lifestyle changes, while avoiding being depicted as nanny state. The next Government must grasp the nettle and be honest with the public about the scale of the changes to come. Achieving buy-in for this from citizens will require meaningful public engagement.
Here we lay out our three climate priorities for political parties.
Bring the public on board
Research has shown repeatedly that the public is increasingly concerned about climate change and supports Government action on net zero. This support persisted even during the Covid-19 pandemic and current cost of living crisis. But research also shows that the public does not fully appreciate the scale or extent of the necessary changes. As these society-wide changes become clearer, strong communication from Government (and indeed all leaders in society) is required so that public support is maintained.
Achieving net zero requires education and, crucially, the cooperation of the public. That’s why CAST, along with many others, has called for a detailed public engagement strategy from the Government. Scotland and Wales have made progress towards this but the UK Government is less advanced. Moreover, it is ‘counter-productive’ to tell the public that we can carry on with behaviour-as-usual and simply swap some technologies for low-carbon alternatives. This may bring a short-term feelgood factor, but it will not get us to where we need to be. Nor will it enable the wider benefits that come from lifestyle change, such as improved health and wellbeing.
Public participation is crucial because engaging citizens in decision making means policies and lifestyle changes are more likely to be accepted. This is because there are inevitable trade-offs as policies are introduced. For instance, the ULEZ scheme to reduce air pollution requires some drivers to change their older more polluting cars, and this often affects those who do not have the means to replace their vehicles regularly. Including citizens in the design of policies can ensure that such considerations are given the appropriate priority. Those who are most affected by climate-related policies must be supported sufficiently and, crucially, be seen to be so. This brings us on to “fairness”.
Fairness is essential
Our research shows that two of the most crucial factors for the acceptance of climate policies are that they are seen to be fair and effective. It’s essential that climate interventions are designed and communicated with this in mind. In the first instance, it is imperative to remove behavioural barriers by making low-carbon choices easier. This can involve reducing costs or making such choices the default. For example, plant-based foods can be provided as standard by public sector organisations. Secondly, the most carbon intensive activities should be disincentivised. This can be achieved by policies like a frequent flyer levy, which is viewed positively by the public because it is perceived as fair.
Fairness has different dimensions, for instance “procedural fairness” is achieved when people are involved in the decisions that affect them. “Distributional fairness” considers how different groups in society are affected differently and ensures that nobody loses out. Fairness also means different things to different people, often depending on political outlook. This provides another reason that the public should be as involved as possible in the changes to their lives and communities. The UK Climate Assembly was a good example of where a representative group of citizens was brought together to discuss the climate transition, evaluate various policies, and arrive at solutions that can be effective and fair.
Leadership and vision
To state the obvious, tackling climate change will not be easy. The scale of the necessary transformations to almost every aspect of how we live can appear quite daunting. This will require clear and courageous political leadership. We often hear politicians talk of making “hard choices”. Unfortunately, what we have seen recently when it comes to UK climate policy is Government and opposition politicians making easy choices by backing away from policies that may incur resistance from the media and small-but-influential lobby groups.
The UK has taken a leading position on climate change policies for several decades. With the Climate Change Act in 2008, the UK passed the world’s first piece of climate legislation and set up the Climate Change Committee (CCC) to advise on policy, an example that has been followed by other countries. Both politically and in terms of emissions reductions, the UK has led the way. But that position is in danger of crumbling.
Leadership and public engagement are closely linked to the signals that Government sends through policy decisions. Continued airport expansion, the recent approval of a new coal mine in Cumbria and granting new licenses to extract more oil and gas from the North Sea send confusing signals that are likely to reduce public confidence that the UK is serious about climate change. Similarly, banning onshore wind, which is the cheapest form of electricity generation, undermines the Government’s message that climate action must be based on hard-headed economic thinking.
Individual action by leaders can be important too. Our research shows that leading by example from politicians, CEOs and celebrities increases leaders’ credibility on climate change and encourages others to adopt low-carbon behaviours.
So, we believe political parties should put climate leadership at the centre of their policy platforms. This means:
- Being honest with the public
- Including the public in the changes to come
- Communicating a clear and coherent vision of the net zero transition
- Leading by example at an institutional and personal level
The people are ready; it’s time for political parties to step up.
About the authors
Dr Steve Westlake and Dr Caroline Verfuerth are part of The Centre for Climate Change and Social Transformations (CAST) team, who are experts on public opinion and pro-climate behaviour change. They are both based at Cardiff University.
Photo credit: Markus Spiske, Unsplash