“People have a veto on Net Zero”: Kathryn Chambers

Published: 17 April 2020

By Kathryn Chambers, Consumer Insight Manager at Energy Systems Catapult.

The Government recently committed the UK to a Net Zero carbon emissions target to tackle climate change. Yet that commitment is dependent on the consent of the British public. The people have a veto on Net Zero.

As part of the Innovating to Net Zero project funded by Innovate UK, which recently modelled 100s of potential pathways to achieve 2050 carbon targets – over 2,000 people were surveyed and focus groups conducted to understand public attitudes, including:

  • Perceptions of climate change, its severity and what activity contributes to it
  • Attitudes towards low carbon technologies and behaviours in heating, diet and transport.


People think something must be done, but they’re not clear on what’s best

75% believe climate change is a global emergency. 84% think Government should do something and 77% think individuals should take some responsibility.

Most people understand that CO2 is causing the problem. They are clear on the link with transport, but they’re less clear on how heating and eating relate to climate change.

Many think they’re already doing everything they can, but they’re focused on things that are less central: 86% say they are recycling everything they can; 71% say they are trying to reduce the amount of single use plastic.


Low Carbon Heating and Renewable Energy

  • Most of those surveyed, had heard of the different low carbon heating options and around half thought a low carbon heating system would have a positive impact on climate change.
  • However, fewer than 20% said they were likely to change to a low carbon heating system when they next need a heating system replacement. The main reasons were that low carbon heating systems were more expensive and less convenient.  However, in a related piece of work we found that uptake remained very low even when we offered to install a system free of charge as part of a field trial.

Transport and Emission Reductions

  • 4 out of 5 people we surveyed owned a car and over half of these almost always drove it for each of their trips. This rose to 2 out of 3 car owners in rural areas.  People in our focus groups loved the independence of travelling by car. Our survey found they had many practical reasons for not using public transport, for instance that it did not go to their desired destination.
  • People in our focus groups said they were open to moving to electric vehicles in principle, but they would have to be a practical option.
  • However, only 3% of our survey sample owned hybrids and 2% owned battery electric vehicles.
  • NOTE: Energy Systems Catapult has started looking at practical solutions for the c.30% of households unable to charge an electric vehicle at home because they have no access to off-street parking.

Diet for Reducing Emissions

  • Less than half of people would be willing to cut their red meat and dairy intake by a quarter. Their main reasons were that they liked the taste and couldn’t see a reason to change (even after the link with climate change was explained).
  • Diet is changing over time, 62% said their diet has changed a lot over the past 5 years. 28% said they were eating more fruit and vegetables and 36% said they were eating less red meat. Health is strongly linked to diet and people are making ‘healthier’ food choices which often includes a reduction in red meat.

Air Travel

  • People can identify the link between flying and climate change and a third (34%) of those that flew last year said they’d be willing to fly less often. 78% of those who had flown said they would be willing to use a different mode of transport for short haul flights. Trains were the most popular alternative, particularly for domestic flights and trips to Europe.
  • 19% had flown three or more times last year and 59% of these said they would not cut down personal flights to only one each year.


Reaching Net Zero Emissions: From Awareness to Action

So, most people know about climate change and think something must be done. But they’re less clear on what to do. We should be focusing that public enthusiasm on areas where action could make the most difference. The areas that make up a bigger proportion of carbon dioxide emissions and where change is happening more slowly.

To deliver the scale of change we need, perhaps it would also help to make it easier. Of course, it’s possible to eat less red meat, cut down on dairy and fly less often, but it’s harder when it comes to heating and travel.

What should people do if public transport is poor and they have nowhere to charge an electric vehicle? How will people know how to get the heating they want from a low carbon system?

If we want to cut emissions to Net Zero, perhaps we could harness our creativity to design low carbon solutions that are as good as, or ideally even better, than what we have already.



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