Wind turbines and some sheep, UK

Climate Change Committee head urges public engagement with net-zero transition

Image credit: Jasminelove | Dreamstime

The CEO of the independent Climate Change Committee Chris Stark has called on the Government to engage citizens in the “profoundly positive” lifestyle changes that will come as the UK transitions to a net-zero CO2 economy.

Stark said that switching to EVs, heat pumps, and transitioning to work in greener sectors can have huge benefits for people as well as for the environment, such as the health benefits of reducing air pollution. However, he emphasised that this transition must be just, with support for the public to adapt.

The Government is expected to produce the details of its net-zero strategy, detailing how it will cut emissions to zero overall by 2050, before the Cop26 climate talks hosted by the UK in Glasgow. Stark said it was right to set emissions-cutting targets in line with the Paris Agreement – which aims to limit warming to 1.5°C – including net-zero by 2050 and 68 per cent cuts by 2030.

“It is exactly what we need to have the credibility to host those talks and to demand the same of others,” said Stark.

However, he warned that delivery on some targets is missing and that the strategy needed policies for this decade in areas the UK is falling behind, such as heating homes. Last month, Greenpeace reported that the UK is falling behind on heat pump installations compared with most of Europe.

Speaking to the PA news agency, Stark said 2030 is a key date because fossil fuel-burning technologies such as cars and boilers last up to 20 years, meaning sales must be phased out by around the end of the decade.

He added that while the overall costs of the transition are low – or even positive for the economy – there are real costs in areas such as cutting carbon emissions from homes and industry. The government needs to set out how it is going to spread the burden across society as part of its strategy, he urged.

Although the UK has significantly cut its emissions since 1990, most of the reduction has been in the energy sector, such as through the decline of coal, meaning that most citizens have not seen the impact of the transition in their everyday lives. Much of the action needed now involves direct changes in behaviour, such as lowering meat consumption and choosing an EV instead of another petrol or diesel vehicle.

He suggested a nationwide public information campaign on the net-zero transition, similar to one already in Scotland. It could explain how people might heat their home differently with a heat pump or “refuel” their car with a charging point instead of going to the petrol station.

“Crucially, none of these things are particularly frightening, but we can’t imagine that everyone will be ready for that, so it’s about preparing for those kind of changes,” he said.  “Presenting them not as frightening changes, but as a sort of natural progression of moving on from the things that we that we do day-to-day today to a different set of things that we’ll do day-to-day tomorrow, is really important.”

“That idea of it being a kind of safe, secure transition which people are going to be supported over, would really take some of the sting out of the criticism for the net-zero plan that we see occasionally,” he said.

He added: “The crucial task of that public information campaign is to get people ready for the changes ahead, and also to present them in a positive light because there’s this feeling often of how difficult this will be.”

He added that the government should make an effort to involve people in decision-making at the local level in order to build engagement and ensure that cities, towns, and villages get the green infrastructure that suits the area best. For instance, cities may be better suited to heat networks than heat pumps, while hydrogen boilers could be used by households living near industrial hydrogen production facilities.

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