The Government needs to be honest about how its climate plans will change our lives

Elliot Langley

May 17, 2021

According to Government figures published last week, just 14 per cent of the UK population has any serious understanding of the concept of Net Zero. A quarter said they knew “a little” about it, 23 per cent “hardly anything”, and 32 per cent hadn’t heard of it at all.

This public awareness deficit is a huge problem that needs addressing urgently; over the next two decades, the drive towards full decarbonisation will be the policy which comes to define how we live our lives more than any other. Such seismic changes are only achievable with public consent, and the public cannot consent to what they don’t fully understand.

The UK Government recently set the most ambitious carbon reduction target in the world to cut emissions by 78 per cent compared to 1990 levels. It was right to do so. Defeating Covid will feel like a warm-up round compared to the coming battle to combat climate change. It’s a necessary fight and the UK should be proud of leading from the front. But as with Covid, this fight will require restrictions on choice.

People will have to change how they travel, and possibly do less of it – especially abroad. They may have to change their career, what they eat, and how they heat their homes. Most significantly, their lives are likely to become more expensive, either directly (if they have to pay higher energy bills and retrofit their homes) or indirectly (through the vast sums of public money helping fund the energy transition).

No government wants to advertise this, especially when many of the effects may not be felt for some years yet. But this short-termism risks a future backlash from a public that feels it wasn’t presented with the full picture.

Support for tackling climate change in the abstract is strong. However, awareness of what that will mean in practice is not high. An Opinium poll last year found less than half of adults realised they would need to switch to an electric car, despite the Government having already legislated to end the sale of petrol and diesel cars by 2040 (since brought forward to 2030). Just 38 per cent realised their houses would need new heating systems. This suggests a serious failure to properly communicate to people what these policies will mean for them.

And this is just the easy stuff. Automobiles and domestic heating might be expensive to decarbonise, but the technology is there. Other sectors will be much harder. Fully decarbonised aviation by 2050 looks like a huge stretch, and agriculture will also be extremely challenging. It may be possible to build enough carbon capture units that emissions from these sectors can be tolerated within a Net Zero system. But some doubt the technology can be scaled sufficiently, and even if it can it will come at immense cost to the taxpayer.

Meanwhile, workers in high-carbon sectors will need to be forcibly relocated into new jobs. The ‘just transition’ has become a buzzword in Westminster over the past year, as attention turns to how to avoid people whose jobs become obsolete from being left behind. Some work has already been done; the Government recently published a transition deal for the North Sea oil and gas industry, and there should be more to come in the Treasury’s Net Zero Review due later this year. But a centralised strategy, involving multiple departments and other bodies, is urgently needed.

The Government’s rhetoric on Net Zero has so far been almost entirely of opportunity – a “green industrial revolution” ushering in millions of new jobs. Decarbonising the economy is a chance to build a more secure future, and undoubtedly many workers will find sustainable employment in the new world. Nevertheless, not enough is currently being said about the sacrifices Net Zero will require of us, and it’s wrong of the Government to behave as if the greatest societal transformation since the Industrial Revolution will be essentially consequence-free.

When it comes to the biggest decisions, governments have to take the public with them. Buy-in is not optional.

The months of violent protests sparked by Emmanuel Macron’s attempt in 2018 to impose a rise in fuel duty to drive down emissions shows what can happen when people suddenly realise that measures to tackle climate change mean a hit to their pockets, especially if – as is usually the case – they are perceived to fall most heavily on the disadvantaged.

Consent and credibility take time to build, and it starts with getting the communication right, and making sure the public understand why you’re making the decisions that you are. Covid has taught us that people are prepared to make huge alterations to their daily lives when they understand the need. The Government should be more open about what Net Zero means for all of us.


Written by Elliot Langley

Elliot Langley is a public affairs consultant at Edelman.

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