The UK was one of the first major economies to commit to net zero emissions by 2050. It founded an independent body to monitor its progress, the Climate Change Committee (CCC), that has been the envy of many other countries. But the CCC’s latest assessment couldn’t be clearer: any claim to climate leadership that the UK government may have had is being squandered.
Recent events have surely compounded this judgement. From approving climate science-defying new licenses for oil and gas exploration to declaring himself to be “on the side of drivers”, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak shows little interest in claiming the mantle of climate leadership. Quite the opposite.
I research public engagement with climate policies and have seen how damaging this abdication of duty can be. Achieving net zero emissions will require people making significant changes. And research I have carried out with colleagues suggests this will not happen without the government playing a leading role.
This includes bringing in policies which help people switch to low-carbon alternatives, having consistent messaging, leading by example (taking the train instead of flying by private jet, for example), and working to build consensus on more contentious policy issues, such as car use and meat consumption.
Work we conducted with the consultancy Thinks (formerly Britain Thinks) showed that the public consistently identifies the government as the key player in leading the transition to net zero. Yet even before its recent shift in rhetoric, people did not think the government was stepping up to this role.
This made people pessimistic about the country’s climate targets being met, frustrated with the heavier burden placed on individuals and less willing to make more expensive or difficult choices to reduce emissions.
To take just one example, work we did with homeowners revealed that most had no idea of the scale of change they would be required to make to their homes, including installing new insulation, new radiators and a heat pump, to make them carbon-neutral. The people we spoke to pointed to the government allowing new homes to be built that don’t even meet these standards.
They were hesitant to make significant and expensive changes to their homes if they couldn’t even be sure that the government was committed to this shift and would provide support over the long term. Inconsistent messaging and a lack of information from the government were seen as barriers that were just as big as insufficient funding.
Even at the level of individual politicians, people are quick to pick up on hypocritical behavior, such as using private jets. Research shows that these seemingly innocuous choices can be symbolic and affect a person’s willingness to adopt a low-carbon lifestyle.
In our conversations with members of the public about net-zero policies, we hear the government’s leadership on climate change unfavorably compared with its leadership on COVID-19. Government messaging and support, at least in the beginning, made it clear to many of those we spoke to what was expected of them and how their actions would belong to a collective effort. The difference with climate action could not be starker, they say.
But it’s not just consistent messaging and symbolic leadership that matters. There are areas of climate policy, such as car ownership and meat consumption, where consensus on solutions is limited. CCC modelling suggests that, for the UK to meet its targets, meat consumption and miles traveled by car must fall in absolute terms.
Yet research shows people are divided over whether, and how, government should act to bring about such changes. Making progress in these areas in a way that is fair and acceptable to the majority can’t be rushed, it requires building consensus and bringing the public into the process of designing policies, and avoiding abrupt changes in strategy.
To go back to our homeowners example, people are willing to accept a ban on new gas boilers but they want it to be communicated well ahead of time, and they want reliable information, reassurance about the quality of work being carried out on their home and at least some financial support to allow them to make the switch on their own terms.
Similarly with measures to reduce car travel, support is contingent on there being affordable alternative transport options, or schemes that allow people to acquire less polluting cars. Designing and implementing these measures takes time and requires working with people. Rather than supporting such efforts, the current prime minister is intent on stoking division.
Our research suggests that the government was already failing to live up to the leadership role people want to see it take. Recent weeks will have probably cemented this view. This is not easily undone. Leadership requires trust, and trust takes time to build. Unfortunately, time is in short supply. Every year that passes makes it harder for the UK to get back on track with meeting its net zero target.
To return to heat pumps: installation rates must reach one million a year by 2030, up from 54,000 in 2021, to keep the UK in reach of its net zero target. As with much of the pathway to net zero, such a jump looks less and less surmountable with every year that passes.
Yet clearly, the opportunity is there if politicians are willing to embrace it. The UK has a history of climate leadership to build on, broad public support for action and numerous economic, health, and environmental benefits to gain.