Tony Blair’s think tank, the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, has recently published a report that states that meeting the net-zero goal – and our arguably more difficult interim targets in 2030 and 2035 – cannot rely on technology deployment alone. It will also require significant behavioural changes from consumers (and voters) across the country. The authors, Brett Meyer and Tim Lord, provide a blog on the report on the institute’s website.
Planes, Homes and Automobiles: The Role of Behaviour Change in Delivering Net Zero
Discussion of climate policy is dominated by the commitment of governments and companies around the world to delivering net-zero emissions by 2050.
But setting targets is the easy part of the challenge: much harder is establishing how they will be delivered.
And while there are many pathways to delivering net zero, they have two things in common.
First, while our decarbonisation to date has not required major changes to our economy and society, the next phase will be more costly, visible and impactful – requiring profound changes in how we produce and use energy, how we move around, the buildings we live in, and our environment and countryside.
Second, meeting the net-zero goal – and our arguably more difficult interim targets in 2030 and 2035 – cannot rely on technology deployment alone. It will also require significant behavioural changes from consumers (and voters) across the country.
The requirement for behavioural changes means that debates around the politics of net zero are increasingly, and rightly, focused on issues of public consent and support. Net zero cannot and should not be achieved on the quiet. If the government’s targets are to be achieved, voters will need to act. And while passive consent may be enough in some areas, for net zero to be politically achievable it will need active support from those voters.
While that issue is widely acknowledged, discussion of behaviour changes required for net zero is often simplistic. Broadly speaking, there are three main positions:
- Net zero is “win-win”: those who argue that net zero need not involve challenging trade-offs and is, in the words of Boris Johnson, a “cake have eat” agenda;1
- Big changes are good: those who argue that many of the behavioural changes required for net zero are desirable not just for reducing emissions, but also because of other (sometimes moral) reasons;
- Big changes are bad: those who claim that the behaviour changes required for net zero are so profound that they will mean “the end of the comfortable lifestyles we have enjoyed for generations”.2
But none of these positions reflects what is really required, or what could be the most politically deliverable pathway to net zero. Unquestionably net zero requires trade-offs, and not all changes will be popular – but it does not call for a reduction in living standards, and in many cases offers significant co-benefits. The most politically deliverable pathway to net zero is one that focuses on a limited number of specific behaviour changes, minimises the need for massive lifestyle changes such as an end to flying or mass conversion to plant-based diets, and that maximises the delivery of wider benefits.
At the moment, our approach to behaviour change is stuck in a vicious circle: voters have low knowledge and little inclination to act, politicians are reluctant to put in place policies to incentivise action, and technology deployment is not high enough to drive cost reduction.
But a better way is possible: by strengthening voters’ understanding of the changes that will be needed and engaging them properly in policy design, this can be turned into a virtuous circle – where higher public understanding and knowledge enables greater political courage, and increased technology-deployment levels cut costs and make net-zero behaviours a social norm.
This report aims to shine a light on the behaviour changes required for net zero by exploring two questions:
- What consumer behaviour changes are likely to be required to achieve net zero in the UK?
- How ready is the UK public to make these changes?
Finally, we set out high-level recommendations for how government should both build the case for and implement behaviour change as part of its broader net-zero strategy.
This report builds on our recent report, Polls Apart?, which showed the potential for division on net-zero policy and how, while much of the focus to date has been on the engineering and technology challenges of net zero, the political challenge is at least as big. The Tony Blair Institute for Global Change will be undertaking further work to explore those issues in key sectors – particularly buildings and transport.
The report is available here.