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With the support of government, the public can power Britain to net zero

By Rachael Orr on August 2, 2023

As the fallout from the Uxbridge byelection shows, educating and engaging the public must be put on an equal footing with policy design and regulatory change, writes our CEO Rachael Orr. Originally published in BusinessGreen.

What do COP28 President Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber and Mayor of Greater Manchester Andy Burnham have in common? Last week they could both be found talking about putting people at the heart of climate action.

We need to see a lot more detail about Sultan Al Jaber’s plans for how he will achieve this as he prepares to host COP28 later this year. But in Andy Burnham’s case, we have a lot more detail.

What does it really mean to put people at the heart of climate action? How can we better engage residents of the North West of England with the net zero energy transition? These were the questions posed to us by Mayors Burnham and Steve Rotheram as part of the North West Green Energy Task Force, which was set up last year and reported its findings last week.

The mayors wanted to know if the North West of England can be a green energy ‘superpower’. The task force concluded that it has every opportunity to be – but that we need to be ambitious both in our policy framework and delivery. Public engagement is a crucial part of that, and it’s also the only way that such economic transformation will be and will feel fair – without that it won’t have the necessary support.

As anyone hearing from voters in the forthcoming ULEZ, sorry, Uxbridge, by-election will attest, it’s about how these policies are implemented that is going to be a challenge. I’ve heard three or four interviews from the constituency this month with people saying variations of ‘I agree with the policy of ULEZ expansion – just not how it’s been implemented.’

The public agrees. People are worried about the financial impacts and trade-offs involved with climate action, and this is exacerbated by a lack of meaningful engagement with them about the roles they could play, and about the co-benefits of the net zero transition. The British public are taking some actions to reduce their carbon footprint, but they would like a framework to support them to do more.

The implementation of ambitious policy is one of the biggest challenges we have to overcome in the coming decades. The transformation we need in our economies and our communities is huge. And we need everyone, from citizens to community leaders to COP Presidents, to be thinking about it.

It helps enormously when the public engagement agenda is championed by other influential voices. The Climate Change Committee (CCC)’s progress report last month was, rightly, headlined as a demonstration of how the UK is losing its political leadership on climate. But the report also pointed to one way we can start to regain this leadership. It talks about the need to “empower and inform households and communities to make low carbon choices” and calls for the government to publish its long-overdue public engagement strategy. Encouragingly, the report mentions engagement or public engagement 75 times, compared with just once in the CCC’s 2018 progress report.

People want to see more leadership from governments, regionally and nationally. We said to the metro mayors that they should seize the opportunity to both champion and deliver innovative public engagement. They should use their convening power to bring together local leaders, businesses and civil society, and start thinking about how to involve people and communities in the North West’s renewable energy ambitions. People need to understand it, shape it, and see what it means for their lives. We also told the mayors they needed to find trusted messengers whom people connect with – and sometimes that might not be them.

So what should national government do? Within the next month or so, Climate Outreach and partners will publish a paper that sets out four policy asks for a comprehensive national public engagement strategy, outlines the vital components for such a strategy to succeed, and provides a number of case studies of successful engagement campaigns delivered by UK councils.

Of course engagement alone doesn’t solve our problems. You can’t PR your way out of bad or limited policy. But I think we are equally learning that unless we put educating and engaging the public on an equal footing with policy design and regulatory change, we simply will not deliver on our net zero ambitions.

By Rachael Orr

Rachael is the CEO of Climate Outreach. She works closely with the board to ensure effective governance and growth of the organisation and with our senior leaders in defining and delivering the organisation’s overall strategy, goals and impact.

Rachael has spent her career in the voluntary sector in leadership roles combining a deep commitment to social justice and to public engagement. She has run campaigns for Shelter, led programme and campaigning work at Oxfam and currently serves as Chair of Trustees at the Refugee Council.

It was in her last role, leading a network of housing associations, that Rachael really appreciated the huge gap in public awareness and engagement on climate change – and the huge opportunity to fill this gap. Housing, like many sectors, is in a race to decarbonise, and the sector is still really developing its approach to community, resident and public engagement. Rachael firmly believes that Climate Outreach is uniquely placed to help many sectors fill this gap.

Rachael is a mum to two young children so most of her spare time is spent playing schools or superheroes – and tidying up. She spends any time she gets to herself running, cycling and going to the theatre.

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