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From Zero to Hero (of Net Zero) – public engagement at the heart of the 6th Carbon Budget

By Jamie Clarke on December 9, 2020

We’ve known what we need to do to tackle climate change for years, and the UK’s carbon budgets have been a world leading example of action planning, right? Wrong. In many respects one critical solution has largely been missing until now – the public.

Public discussion during Parliament Week in London

In the 5th UK Carbon Budget report, published in 2015, there are zero mentions of public engagement and the public does not play a role in enacting the budget; whereas in today’s 6th Carbon Budget there are 102 mentions in the main report, with public engagement being a key policy theme and “Widespread Engagement” one of the four exploratory pathways to net zero.

So how did public engagement shift from zero to hero?

It’s not that the Climate Change Committee are historical outliers in not prioritising public engagement. Public engagement has not, for the most part, played a central role in either civil society or governmental campaigns and communications on climate change so far.

Over the years we’ve seen a smattering of government individual behaviour change initiatives such as Act On Co2 from 2008, and some (controversial) attempts at public engagement campaigns, such as the Bedtime Stories ad campaign. The reality is though that public engagement has mostly been the Cinderella of government climate interventions.

But no longer. In many ways the UK has largely achieved the easy part of decarbonising by mostly focusing on energy generation – and now comes the hard part. 

Over recent years it has become clear that achieving rapid social change, with the consent and participation of the population, requires effective communications and the active engagement of the public, or it will not succeed. The Climate Change Committee estimates that more than half (59%) of the remaining emissions reductions in the UK will happen either entirely through individual choices and behaviours, or through social or behavioural change in conjunction with the development of new technologies. 

Today’s report encouragingly recognises the critical role for public engagement and sees it as a key policy area for net zero: 

“It will not be possible to get close to meeting a Net Zero target without engaging with people or by pursuing an approach that focuses only on supply-side changes” states the CCC (p. 70). 

What does this mean for the UK?

As the report outlines, demand reduction is planned to be doing a lot of the hard work in the near-term (the first 10 years) of the pathway to net zero by 2050. It’s contributing (through diet change, heating demand reduction and more) to the important ‘frontloading’ of emissions. It’s also clear we can be richer and healthier if we make this investment – without even factoring in the moral imperative to do this. The cost will be well below 1% of GDP right through the 2030s, but the challenge is spreading the costs across the economy and across income levels. Ensuring that all policies are (and appear) fair is critical.  

Public concern about climate change has been growing steadily and there are encouraging signs of positive engagement across almost all sections of society (as illustrated in our recent Britain Talks Climate research). 

But high levels of concern aren’t the same as committed public support for change. Rapid emissions cuts require significant lifestyle changes and shifts in what is politically acceptable. This will need strong and consistent support across the public and we can’t assume there won’t be any backsliding. 

Creating and maintaining such a social mandate requires the creation of public engagement infrastructure akin to other climate sectors, whether energy, technology, transport or finance.  Such initiatives will need a commensurate level of coordination, expertise and investment. 

We’re in a strong position as the UK has some of the world’s leading experts and organisations in this field, and their expertise will need to underpin this work. Key building blocks of a national public engagement infrastructure would need to include:

  • Creating and funding a national public engagement strategy

A comprehensive and fully funded ten year strategy will be critical but this is currently missing. As the CCC report highlights  “there is currently no Government strategy to engage the public in the transition to a low-carbon and climate resilient economy. This will need to change.”  Any strategy will need to be held accountable with the ability to evaluate its success against a clear set of criteria and benchmarks.

  • Underpinning with long-term audience understanding

Generic, one size fits all, initiatives are unlikely to be successful, and any comprehensive strategy will need to be underpinned by being able to relate to key communities across the country. It’s therefore critical that robust and longitudinal audience research is undertaken. Segmenting audiences by values and identities (which we know are the key long-term drivers of behaviours and attitudes) is the right way to approach this – our Britain Talks Climate project serves as an example of how this can work.

  • Using a complete public engagement toolkit – Nudge isn’t enough

Converting high levels of concern and climate activism into social change requires a commitment to evidence-based strategies. There is a clear message in the CCC report to the government that piecemeal behaviour change won’t cut it, but that people are supportive once they understand and can relate to the issues, which is why we need a proper engagement process. We need to accompany ‘nudge’ with ‘think’ as a strategy for public engagement. Participatory dialogues and conversations often offer the best method with which to build a sense of climate citizenship. Individual behaviours do matter, but as illustrated in the chapter Climate Outreach lead on in today’s UN Environment Programme Emissions Gap report, lifestyle change and system change are two sides of the same coin.

  • Recognising our international commitments to public engagement

As a signatory to the Paris Agreement, the UK is required to commit to building public awareness of climate change under Article 6. So far the government, along with most others, has done little to fulfill this commitment. Glasgow’s UN Climate Conference provides an ideal opportunity for the UK to step up to the mark on public engagement, both domestically but also at the international level – championing the role of citizens and challenging other nations to live up to their commitments.

Today’s report marks a significant turning point, it signals not only a recognition that people need to be at the heart of climate action, but also starts to set out some of the critical staging posts.

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By Jamie Clarke

Jamie Clarke was Climate Outreach’s Executive Director for almost 10 years, from 2013 to 2022. Under his leadership, Climate Outreach grew into an internationally acclaimed organisation. As a values-based leader, he provided strategic direction with an empathetic management approach. He is a proven international speaker and considered writer who feels as comfortable addressing the UNFCCC as co-authoring books such as Talking Climate. In his studies as a social scientist, he focused on participatory processes at the nexus of societal and environmental issues. Undertaking extensive research in the Pantanal region of Brazil crystalised his understanding of centrality of effective citizen engagement in change processes.  

Passionate about widening engagement with climate change, he previously worked for advocacy organisations including Amnesty International UK and Practical Action. In these roles he saw how difficult it is for many people to connect with climate change narratives, and how this often underpins apathy and opposition. Determined to address this and the largely under-recognised role that the wider public has in tackling climate change, he previously led a successful youth climate outreach programme that targeted marginalised students studying vocational courses. Jamie lived for many years on a canal boat but now lives on terra firma in Oxford with his family and is rarely off a bicycle.

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