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UK will miss net zero targets unless government uses every lever to change behaviours


3 min read

We won’t reach net zero by 2050 unless people change their behaviours to adopt new technologies and use less carbon intensive products and services, as well as reduce carbon-intensive consumption. However, the government’s current approach to help people do this is inadequate.

Given a third of emission savings by 2035 need to come from people changing their behaviours, the government needs to act quickly. In our recently published report, we found that although the government has introduced some policies to help people adopt new technologies, like electric cars, these have not been replicated in other policy areas and there is too great a reliance on as yet undeveloped technologies to get us to net zero. 

Their Net Zero Strategy mantra of “going with the grain of consumer choice” means they are unwilling to encourage people to cut carbon-intensive behaviours for fear of restricting individual choice.

Education alone though won’t change people’s behaviours

We are calling on the government to learn from the evidence of previous behaviour change interventions, including during the pandemic, and build public support for a national net zero drive. That requires a public engagement campaign to educate the nation about the steps they can take to play their part in reaching climate and environmental goals. The campaign focus should be on how we travel, what we eat and buy and how we heat our homes, articulating the many co-benefits to health and well-being of taking those steps.

Education alone though won’t change people’s behaviours. The clear evidence we received was that government needs to use every lever they have – regulations, fiscal incentives and disincentives to address the barriers which prevent people changing behaviours. However, people’s willingness to take personal action will be undermined by inconsistencies across government policy areas, such as reducing domestic air passenger duty or allowing fracking.

The evidence shows people want the government to show leadership and for the United Kingdom's path to net zero to be a fair one. It’s a fact that the upfront costs of some of the measures required will not be affordable for people on low incomes without support. A national drive to improve the energy efficiency of our homes, which we call for, has to address this and provide such financial support, which will have the added benefits of cutting energy bills long-term and tackling energy security. Equally, whilst everyone will need to make some changes, higher income households, which typically have a larger carbon footprint, will need to take larger steps to reduce their emissions.

Whilst policies that incentivise or support people to change are generally more popular, as we’ve seen with the successful levy on plastic bags, taxes have their place. We argue that the government should launch a call for evidence on introducing a frequent flyer levy for long-haul flights, given the high emissions from international flights. Noting that, by design, proposed frequent flyer levies only affect the minority of the population who take flights much more often than the average individual or family.

In response to our report, we are calling on the Prime Minister to urgently set out her vision for the country where low carbon choices and behaviours can flourish. Whilst the Business Secretary says nuclear power will be the cornerstone of net zero, unless this government takes steps to unleash people power it can’t reach its net zero ambitions.


Baroness Parminter, Liberal Democrat peer and chair of the House of Lords Environment and Climate Change Committee.

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Read the most recent article written by Baroness Parminter - Government must speed up electric vehicle roll out or risk missing net zero target