The UK government has pledged to hit a national ‘net zero’ target by 2050 – but the plan to get there does little to help people and communities take part. 

The will is there. In a 2022 nationally representative survey of 2,100 people – conducted by The Young Foundation’s Institute for Community Studies – 95% said they want to take part in the transition to net zero. Only 12% felt they knew how the transition would affect their life. While, through our research, we encounter so many examples of organised, urgent, informal and quiet action in households and families, communities and places, to participate in the transition, it’s pretty hard to see ourselves in any government plan or policy. A consistent focus on economy, business and industry leaves the general public feeling confused, left to their own devices and excluded.

Working with the Nuffield Foundation, the Institute for Community Studies is conducting research in this field, and our forthcoming report will share the creative ways that households, families and communities are taking their participation into their own hands. It documents how people are shifting towards the low carbon living that is an essential part of the UK’s journey to net zero. However, it also shows how those same households, families and communities are too often stopped in their tracks by poorly distributed resources and policies that strip people of their individual and collective agency.

The latest independent review of net zero in the UK acknowledges these blockers (to some degree – don’t get too excited). While the overarching message was still to ‘seize the economic opportunities’ of the transition, the review identified the fractured policy and funding landscape that hinders families’ and communities’ participation. It identifies agency, affordability and accessibility as three key barriers to participation, and acknowledges the reality that the transition is not currently fair for everyone. While their definition of agency is a little lighter in its mention of redistributing power than mine, the report feels an important step forward, recognising that a significant gap exists in strategies and policies that ‘work’ for family and community participation.

Sadly, the UK Government’s subsequent response takes a firm step back again, committing to no change to current policy for creating a clear framework for local net zero action, simplifying the funding landscape, or supporting places with more detailed plans to accompany often high-level targets. These are all measures that, if taken forward, could have helped communities and places to participate. Instead, the response cites the Local Net Zero Hubs, of which there are just five, all focused on providing technical and practical advice to support community or local energy projects. Recommendations to extend support to enable more active community leadership, such as through a Community Energy Strategy, were not seen as valuable enough to act on.

For households and families, the government’s response was no more encouraging. While accepting that the public have an undeniable role to play in the transition to net zero, in committing to public engagement in the form of ‘supporting public awareness of our actions’ and making it easier for people to access information online, their response assumes a passive role for households and families (p51). It speaks to the extension of some schemes, such as the Boiler Upgrade Scheme, but fails to address a key issue highlighted in our research, that these schemes in their current designs are not equitably accessible.

Households and families, and communities and places, want to be better equipped with the ability to participate in the transition to net zero. And public involvement isn’t just a democratic exercise, or worse, an empty gesture – the government’s own review points out that almost half the actions in the Net Zero Strategy require public participation. Supporting local and place-based responses to the transition is key to that participation being more inclusive and equitable. And if we have any hope of achieving our net zero ambitions, households and families, communities, and places must be at the heart of what needs to be a people-powered, just transition.

Find out more about the Institute for Community Studies’ work and research, driving a just transition to net zero. The Institute’s next net zero report will publish in summer 2023. 

Environment Families & Youth Institute for Community Studies climate change environment just transition net zero Posted on: 11 May 2023 Authors: Samanthi Theminimulle,


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