The commitment of both our government and the opposition to net zero could, at best, be described as inconsistent. Yet individual policy environments have hardly been idle.
In fact, substantial progress has been made – nationally and locally – in developing new technologies, infrastructure, and innovations. There are plans for decarbonising our public services, education institutions, and housing. Programmes – led by local government, the voluntary sector, campaign groups, and communities – range from improving food systems to establishing community wind farms, creating ‘net zero neighbourhoods’, and beyond.
Yet still we have no national policy for how the public – every household, and local community – participate in net zero. Where individual net zero policies do exist, they are not people-centred: struggling with low uptake, or available mostly to those who could afford to make changes anyway. In this environment, our research finds the public looking for a cross-departmental and holistic strategy to guide them through.
Such policy must be sensitive to place and expressed in human terms. This is not just about ‘giving people a voice’, and asking what they want to see. Nor is it individuals being nudged towards vegetarianism or told to get on their bike. It isn’t about launching boiler upgrade schemes and hoping people can afford – and find – the options. We need to look at what will empower people to participate in the round.
Our research shows five dimensions that should underpin a public participation strategy for net zero.
- Pathways to engagement
Different households have vastly different starting points. Our research identifies a set of household profiles, based on a mix of factors including housing tenure and stock; spending power and credit score; information access; income dependency and welfare access; and social relationships and dependencies. These things together impact how citizens make decisions about shifting to low-carbon living. Solely profiling which homes need retrofit does not tell you if residents are eligible for a government insulation scheme, or if buying an electric car will suit them. But, by bringing together much wider data, we can see which households fall into each profile, map where they are, and make resources available through local authorities.
- Accessibility and adoption
What measures and schemes will make technologies accessible? What levers, social infrastructure, trusted intermediaries and relationships will enable people to adopt them with confidence? Wraparound plans, once households know their profile pathway, can enable people to access and adopt low-carbon technologies and ways of life.
- Empowerment and agency
This is about skills and jobs, and rights and status – removing barriers to people adopting low-carbon measures: such as tenancy status; mixed tenure in social housing; inaccessible green commuting; or mandated workplace attendance. It’s about empowering people to use green tech and green schemes where they find them.
It is also about a skills strategy for net zero, including retraining bursaries, and a welfare and benefit structure that supports people during upskilling. We need equal access to skills and training; and routes to new and better green jobs for un- or under-employed people, particularly those at risk of becoming so in the transition to green economies.
- Public acceptance
Consistent information and accountability build trust in, and legitimacy of, net zero plans. Community engagement, deliberative governance and clear communications are as vital to consumer choice. Our research shows this is best done locally, through local government or trusted community channels, and re-enforced by a national campaign. Because if government at any level is seen to be dithering over whether net zero is ‘a good call’, the public will not get on the (electric) bus.
- Awareness of societal outcomes from going green
There is a cast iron case for how decarbonisation can deliver societal transformation. Our research shows the social, economic and place outcomes are more compelling to people than the environmental and we should communicate net zero through this lens. Whole household retrofit brings a lower-cost of living, and better health and educational outcomes (from not living and trying to learn in cold, damp environments). Across a community, adaptation for net zero also brings improved air quality, green spaces, brings new connectivity; and can reform our public services and systems. An inclusive transition can improve social mobility, as regions and cities with historically poor economic prospects and opportunities gain industries and diverse job markets by mobilising natural assets, and attracting green industries. It’s about switching away from ‘boom and bust’ towards systems that regenerate, adapt and are resilient.
Finally, net zero transition – like any major economic shift – should be fair and inclusive, both in the burden of change it asks of people, and the risk and disruption it creates. It should create opportunities for everyone, not just a privileged proportion.
As these five dimensions show, the need for fairness is acute. But from the shift from agriculture to industry in the 1800s; from industry to service economy in the 80’s; and in the fifth technological revolution of AI and automation – our track record, as a nation, isn’t good. Economic transitions have, historically, left many workers and, in some cases, whole generations and communities behind.
That’s why we need household and community policy at the heart of our green shift. Not just to accelerate our journey to net zero, but also to build greater engagement and acceptance. The innovation, economic, and scientific case has been made. We must now make – and make good on – the human and community case.