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Government action is vital, but net zero cannot be met without individual change

Government action is vital, but net zero cannot be met without individual change

While eight in ten people (81 per cent) did acknowledge concerns over climate change, only 35 per cent were reported to be ‘very concerned’, writes Alex Goodwin. | PA Images

Alexandra Goodwin

Alexandra Goodwin | Dods Monitoring

5 min read

The Climate Assembly's report, 'the path to net-zero', makes it clear that shifts in individual climate action should be led through government information and education.

Last week, the Climate Assembly, established by six parliamentary committees, comprising of 108 individuals selected to reflect the public, published their final report of recommendations after months of discussions.

The report makes detailed recommendations across 10 areas, including: how we travel; what we eat and how we use the land; what we buy; heat and energy use in the home; how we generate our electricity; and greenhouse gas removals.

The overarching point of the Assembly was to align public preference to decisions of policy. This leads to questions of where climate change responsibility lies – is the solution purely policy led, or do social and individual responsibility play an equal role in ensuring sustained change?

The Committee on Climate Change (CCC) themselves have battled with the idea of individual action and behaviour change vs. government action. Up until the net zero by 2050 target, global warming reduction rested solely with leaders. Now however, the CCC, the Climate Assembly and other relevant bodies have opened up the discussion on the need for the individual to shift behaviours, stating that net zero cannot be met without the public playing their part.

While eight in ten people (81%) did acknowledge concerns over climate change, only 35% were reported to be ‘very concerned’

A shift in behaviour is reliant on the awareness of an issue. Unfortunately, the latest Public Attitudes Tracker (PAT) from the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy highlighted an alarming lack of awareness to climate change severity and net zero targets.

While eight in ten people (81%) did acknowledge concerns over climate change, only 35% were reported to be ‘very concerned’. Similarly, only 16% knew ‘a lot’ or ‘a fair amount’ about net zero, whereas comparatively, 56% of people surveyed knew ‘hardly anything’ or ‘hadn’t heard about it before’.

According to the World Economic Forum’s yearly Global Risks Report, the latest evidence (2019) shows ‘environmental threats’ to be the most frequent in both likelihood of occurring and in impact. On impact, the only one to beat out environmental destruction and climate change on severity of impact were Weapons of Mass Destruction.

The PAT demonstrates that immediate individual change is further away than necessary. It raises questions as to whether behavioural changes should simply be left to state intervention or whether education needs to dramatically improve. Which of these paths to take has been a question faced by governments throughout the years. 

Deciding what comes first, changing the opinions of individuals or government action, is a crucial debate in climate action discussions. Demand plays a significant role in the way companies and corporations behave. Changing consumption patterns on a large scale would give the public the ability to influence companies to switch their production patterns to sustainable methods. Similarly, many climate groups have argued that everyone (that can afford it) has a responsibility to limit global warming.

So, does the Climate Assembly report address the education gap outlined by the latest PAT, and how far should Government policy force this behavioural change?

The report’s recommendations heed a great focus on educating corporations and individuals on the need to reduce emissions in production and consumption

Positively, the report’s recommendations place a great focus on educating corporations and individuals on the need to reduce emissions in production and consumption, ultimately highlighting the ways in which individual choice may be affected by Government facilitation. This was specifically across land travel, personal consumption and in the home.

For example, assembly members heavily supported ‘measures to enable product sharing’ (77%), including technical and financial support to businesses who offer sharing or renting services. They also backed ‘advertising bans and restrictions’ on high emissions products or sectors (74%) to dissuade consumption of certain products. They strongly favoured ‘labelling and information about the carbon emissions caused by different products and services’ (92%) and ‘product labelling and information campaigns about what can be recycled and why it’s important’ (92%).

Similarly, for travel, the assembly was in favour of Government support in helping to create significant change at an individual level, including through education. While the Assembly dictated a need to reduce meat and dairy consumption by between 20% and 40%, they again stressed that these changes should be voluntary and only enforced through educational measures.

Of course, the government telling its electorate what they should or shouldn’t do is not necessarily a winning formula. However, the Assembly make it adamantly clear that all individual change should be led through government information and education

It remains to be seen how many of the recommendations put forward by the Assembly will be accepted across Parliament. However, with the mounting need for personal choices to shift in line with net zero targets and the latest PAT shining a light on a lack of awareness, something will need to be done soon. If the government accepts the Assembly’s word, this burden falls to them.


Mon, Sep 21, 14:30: Net zero London: Challenges and opportunities - IPPR at Labour Connected event

Tue, Sep 29, 18:00: Can capitalism survive climate change? - Noam Chomsky at i2 event

Sun, Oct 4 - Mon, Oct 12: COP26 meetings of the Subsidiary Bodies (SB52)

Mon, Oct 5, 15:00: Ratcheting up ambition on decarbonising our homes - IPPR fringe event

Mon, Oct 5: Chatham House Climate Change Conference

Sat, Oct 24: International Day of Climate Action

TBC – Oct: Net Zero Review - interim findings published


Alexandra Goodwin is the Dods Political Consultant for Energy and Climate Change. 

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