To get the public on board with net zero targets, it is vital to have a consistent message from the government. When policy changes, it can be hard to win back confidence, write Ed Houghton and Emily King of DG Cities

Emily King_headshot

Emily King is a behavioural scientists at DG Cities

In June, the UK’s independent climate change committee presented its annual report on progress towards net zero. The verdict was damning. In the committe’s words, action is far too slow to meet the country’s legal obligations to decarbonise, with housing and transport sectors the most pressed to deliver rapid change.

Fast forward to this autumn, to conference season, and the contents of the committee’s report seem to have been forgotten. We heard pro-car policy rhetoric, reducing net zero commitments to questions of individual choice and freedom, in opposition to the voices of the scientific community.

Instead of a legal and moral duty to limit the effects of climate change, the UK political response has been to agree, in part, that change is needed – but not if it is too difficult for people. 

Shifts in policy are confusing: the public needs to know what will happen, when, and who to trust

Ed Houghton low res

Ed Houghton is head of research at DG Cities

Our small team at DG Cities works with local authorities and the private sector to harness the potential of technology to improve housing, transport and deliver on net zero targets: trialling damp and mould sensors, for instance, or evaluating demand and capacity for electric vehicle chargers. A significant part of this work is public engagement, whether through surveys, events or workshops, to understand people’s attitudes to new advances, such as autonomous vehicles and heat pumps.

This research has given us an insight into just how vital it is for any government to have a consistent message – something that is key to building the trust at the heart of any wholesale change in behaviour. Shifts in policy are confusing: the public needs to know what will happen, when, and who to trust.

When they look to leadership and see that they are not following clear evidence, it can cause confusion, doubt and – ultimately – disengagement.

Mixed messages from the top undermine some of the great work that councils of all stripes are doing around the country to reduce carbon emissions and improve living standards. For those working in local government who are committed to delivering real change for their communities, a lack of public trust can severely stymie progress.

Institutions need to lead by example, by following scientific advice and clearly articulating – in practical, everyday terms – what needs to be done to reduce the impacts of climate change.

A 2020 meta-analysis of the relationship between trust and climate-friendly behaviours shows a strong positive correlation between trust in environmental scientists and individual climate-friendly behaviours. However, there is a far weaker correlation between trust in public institutions and climate-friendly behaviours.

In other words, those who place a high level of trust in environmental scientists are performing more environmentally-friendly behaviours – such as recycling or taking public transport, in their everyday lives – while the current level of trust in public institutions is not strongly linked to climate-related behaviour. This could, in part, be due to mixed policy messages by a government pulling back on its  own climate targets; those who trust institutions to take the lead on climate action are now less sure of the urgency of the issue and the need to act.

This also undermines people’s confidence in scientific experts, who otherwise appear to have a positive influence on individuals’ own levels of climate action.

We know from our work in the Royal Borough of Greenwich just how important trust is to building engagement on climate projects at a local level, and for community cohesion. A key focus of our projects is bringing diverse voices into conversations about climate change; and applying a climate justice lens.

For example, a project reducing social housing tenants’ energy use was based on principles of co-design and knowledge sharing. We set up an energy community for participants to share their stories and tips for cutting consumption.

What the method showed was the value of community cohesion in building a shared local commitment to addressing the causes of climate change at an individual level.

This approach also gives us insights into how we might remove some of people’s barriers and increase their motivation to take “greener” actions. It is true that progress will be limited if the recommended actions are “too difficult for the public”, but we don’t just give up.

We believe that consensus and convenience will lead the way to net zero

We rely on public institutions to play an important role in removing those difficulties. To do this, we need intense engagement to understand people’s needs, to make choosing an environmentally friendly lifestyle more intuitive, easier to achieve. We believe that consensus and convenience will lead the way to net zero.

We have not seen the hostility towards climate solutions, or pro-motorist at all costs attitudes that the government seems to be banking on. The communities we have worked with, by and large, have wanted action to limit the effects of climate change, in so far as their individual actions can make a difference.

They have been keen to cut their energy use, lower their household costs, protect their local environment and make their streets safer. So, in the absence of clear political will to deliver change, it is great to see local leaders and communities coming together to take up the challenge to try and limit the effects of a warming planet on all of us.

Ed Houghton is head of research and Emily King a behavioural scientist at DG Cities, an innovation agency in Greenwich that works on council and government-funded projects around social housing retrofit, heat pump adoption, EV infrastructure strategies, fleet electrification and mobility hubs.