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Net zero ‘backlash’ – why public engagement is so urgently needed

By David Powell on November 22, 2023

Drone view showing a new housing development with solar panels and solar panels in agricultural land beyond.

Is the UK on the cusp of a damaging net zero backlash? A new briefing from CAST and Climate Outreach looks at whether we are, and how seriously it should be taken if so. A sense of fairness is essential, but there has been a vacuum of meaningful public engagement to explore what this means. 

The UK has done pretty well at avoiding climate polarisation until now. But the Prime Minister’s speech on net zero in September felt like something new in the politics of climate change in Britain. 

Mr Sunak suggested the pace of emissions cuts was too fast, painting net zero as a “sacrifice” that will “fundamentally change our lives”. Suffice it to say this is not the kind of positive, can-do framing that gets people inspired.

Positive stories matter. When asked, people think climate is important and the government should do more, not less. But the actual mechanics of how we get there – our homes, transport, diets, public spaces – all require active consent.  That becomes harder if the national conversation about net zero is one of hardship and suffering, and if people feel that it’s ‘not for them’. 

Until now, most carbon cuts have happened kind of in the background of people’s lives. What’s next is different. Millions of gas boilers will need to shift to new tech like heat pumps. Electric cars instead of petrol. And in a hundred other ways (see a recent CAST report for the Climate Change Committee) people will need to be actively, positively and empathetically involved.  They should have been for years. 

Public engagement has long been the Cinderella policy of net zero, put in the ‘too hard’ or ‘too controversial’ box. Successive UK governments have been really bad at public engagement on climate change. The text of the Paris Agreement requires signatories (including the UK) to engage, inspire and involve people in the climate conversation. A House of Lords Committee, the Climate Change Committee, and the influential Skidmore Review of Net Zero have all called for the government to up its game and bring in a public engagement strategy. We recently set out what we think the core elements of this strategy should be.

Given the absence of meaningful engagement it would be a surprise if there wasn’t a backlash against net zero. There’s a vacuum, and plenty of people happy to stoke a sense of injustice. Opponents of climate action have given up on outright denial and are instead pivoting to picking off net zero policies one by one. More pervasively there is a broader crisis of trust, exacerbated by the feedback chambers of social media.  

But there are more legitimate grievances. Some people might feel for example that they can’t afford things like heat pumps, or that they are being unfairly penalised for driving when they might not see decent alternatives. 

A collective sense of fairness is probably the must have for a general public mandate for getting on with anything on the scale of net zero (see our 2022 guide and research).  There are some common principles across the seven British segments, as explored in our Britain Talks Climate toolkit. There’s near-universal agreement that those on the lowest incomes should not be asked to do the same as those with high-carbon lifestyles, that costs should be fairly distributed, and that people want to feel like they have a say.  Getting those basic things right is where you start. 

But that sense of consent requires us to feel that both net zero as a whole, and the details of particular plans, are procedurally fair – that we feel like what’s happening is broadly the right thing to do, fits in with our values, and is a process to which we consent. What that means in practice will depend on who we are, what wider stories we hear, and who we trust. 

What is clear is that small stories can quickly grow into national ones, shaping the narratives about net zero we hear around us. The powerful gilets jaunes movement in France started from a small number of farmers annoyed about the imposition of a new carbon tax.  

Getting on the front foot needs two things: meaningful involvement, and authentic but positive visioning and storytelling. Climate policies need to be actually fair, and held to be so by those affected and in the wider court of public debate. And visions of where we’re going need to chime with the diversity of people’s hopes and concerns; not painted as a sacrifice or an assault on our way of life. 

Change is hard and doing it properly requires money, time and prioritisation.  Transitions can be bumpy and you can’t keep everyone happy.  But Mr Sunak was not wrong when he said there has not been an “honest conversation” with the public about what the transition means.  Not having it is not an option, and that’s what public engagement is – and why we so urgently need it right now.

With the COP28 climate talks about to begin it’s worth saying it’s not just the UK that is doing badly at delivering on its commitments to public engagement. We hope global leaders will use their platforms to talk about how they plan to put citizens at the heart of the transition. There is, to be frank, a long way to go.

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By David Powell

David leads our advocacy work, championing public engagement and effective climate communications with policy makers, politicians and those who influence them.

David has nearly two decades of experience as a campaigner, communicator, researcher and strategist on environment and climate change. He’s worked as Head of Environment and Green Transition at the New Economics Foundation and senior campaigner on economics and resources at Friends of the Earth. He has a MA in English Literature, an MSc in Environmental Strategy, and a Graduate Diploma in Economics. He’s particularly interested in the intersection between systems change and individual psychology, and how to build campaigns that harness the deeply held concerns we all have about the climate crisis.

Outside of work he hosts the climate psychology podcast, Your Brain on Climate, and until 2022 was co-host of Sustainababble. He is also the chair of Somerset Wildlands, and spends whatever time there is left running and playing the sax.

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