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Building on the new normal: behavioural change on road to net zero

Lucy Yu   •   17 September 2021

These were the words of Baroness Randerson who spoke yesterday at an important debate in the House of Lords on the role of behavioural change in helping us reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050. Hooked to the report by the Climate Change Committee (CCC) ‘Reducing UK emissions: 2020 Progress Report to Parliament’, speakers gathered to discuss the positive environmental impacts of lifestyle changes prompted by the Covid-19 pandemic — from remote working to reduced travel — and the potential of these and other behaviour changes to alter the long-term emissions trajectory of the UK.

The pandemic revealed a scale and pace of behavioural change that many of us would never have believed possible. There is an opportunity to use this as a springboard to be more ambitious about net zero — but we must bring the public along with us.

As highlighted by Baroness Blackstone, The CCC report found that 62% of the measures required to reach net zero require changes to public behaviour — yet there is currently no centrally-led strategy to tackle this. Public support for climate action is high but research points to a lack of understanding when it comes to the tangible actions people can take to achieve positive impact. The debate pointed to the general public’s belief in the importance of recycling and avoiding plastic bag use in protecting the planet — with comparatively little knowledge of the areas they can have the most impact. Awareness of the core contributors to climate change is limited: recent research shows that only 5% of those surveyed independently cited heat as a major contributor to climate change — compared to 89% for transport.

Clearly there is work to be done, and several speakers called for the Government to put public engagement at the core of its delayed Net Zero Strategy. Yet in disseminating broad-brush climate messaging, the challenge ministers will face is driving meaningful engagement across society that encourages the endurance of positive behavioural changes and builds support for important new ones, such as the adoption of low-carbon technologies (including heat pumps and electric vehicles). Switching out an ICE vehicle or a gas boiler for a greener alternative demands awareness and investment from the general public — many of whom would argue they are short on both.

In a study from earlier this year, 71% of respondents said that they ‘didn’t know much’ about low-carbon heating technologies — yet when presented with a range of policies to reduce heating emissions, respondents were overwhelmingly in support of further government action.

The general public’s positive response to restrictive measures put in place by the Government during the pandemic shows that people are willing to adapt their behaviour if they understand how it can benefit society — but the ability to resonate with a diverse population is key. The UK is made up of 30 million households that vary significantly in their size and condition, demographic, socio-economic status and energy requirements. In this environment, context is everything.

It is in acknowledgement of this that at Centre for Net Zero, we’re building an agent-based model of the energy transition that recognises the role of individual agency and the diversity of populations, circumstances and opinions. By taking this bottom-up approach, we’re able to move away from the ‘cost optimal’ pathways to net zero which dominate existing research and instead focus on understanding the energy and decision-making behaviours of people within the energy system. The agents and behaviours we’re modelling include households, businesses, investors, developers and many others. We’re able to learn how these behaviours interact and how this might change in response to particular policies or other interventions in the future.

This type of modelling can help define an approach to public engagement, answering questions about where to focus attention and providing insights that can inform how best to sequence public campaigns, and target and tailor intervention.

By building detailed understandings of sub-groups of the population, there is opportunity to encourage small numbers of people to adopt positive behaviours that can result in the tipping points required to deliver impact at scale. History tells us that small communities of early adopters can flourish and act as the drivers behind new behaviours.

Finding and engaging these communities holds the key to catalysing the shift to net zero. With recent polling from Ipsos MORI placing climate change as the second most important issue to UK voters, above the economy, it’s clear that public will and support is there — but the hurdle the Government has to overcome is converting this into understanding and acceptance of the tough choices that lie ahead and the impact these will have — from the appropriate balance of net zero costs to the Exchequer, to consumers and to the economy, to the required material changes to the way we live, work and move.

A careful, well-informed and people-centric strategy is needed to successfully engage segments of the population who can catalyse widespread change. We look forward to sharing insights from our agent-based model later this year that can shape a robust public engagement strategy, fostering the behavioural changes that we must all adopt as we drive towards net zero.