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Tech innovation insufficient for UK to reach net-zero target

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University of Cambridge researchers have published a paper in The BMJ arguing that the UK’s current climate commitments are unmatched by action. They conclude that rapid and radical changes at the systemic level are essential to end unsustainable behaviour and achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

Professor Dame Theresa Marteau, director of the behaviour and health research unit at the University of Cambridge, is heading calls for systemic behavioural change to mitigate climate change.

Dame Theresa and her colleagues state that technological innovation will not be sufficient for the UK to reach its goal of net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, in line with the Paris Agreement. Reaching net-zero CO2 by 2050 at the latest is critical to keeping global warming within 1.5°C, but experts warn that the world is nowhere near on track to reach this target.

The UK, for example, whilst among the first countries to set a legally binding target of net zero by 2050, has so far fully implemented just 11 of 92 policy recommendations from the independent climate change committee and is not on track to meet its long-term (net-zero) or the medium-term carbon budgets

The BMJ paper focuses on changing unsustainable and unhealthy behaviours regarding diet and land travel, which contribute an estimated 26 per cent and 12 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions, respectively. They advise adopting a largely plant-based diet and taking most journeys using walking, cycling and public transport to cut emissions drastically, whilst also improving public health.

They acknowledge that changing behaviour at scale is difficult, but say changing the physical and economic environments that drive the behaviour has the most potential to succeed. They believe the necessary changes to diet and land travel can be achieved through policies that increase the availability and affordability of healthier and more sustainable options.

For example, promoting healthier and more sustainable foods while increasing prices of carbon-intensive foods and reducing prices of foods that are less carbon intensive; creating safe and attractive cycling and walking routes; ensuring low-cost public transport, and restricting availability and attractiveness of personal vehicle use.

The paper emphasises that changes need to be fair and equitable as well as effective to gain public support. They must also be driven by evidence and protected from powerful commercial interests.

“Complex coordinated behaviour can be mobilised by a shared, positive narrative, reflecting collective goals, alongside a clear vision, making vivid the many benefits of a net-zero world,” the paper says. “The development of such a vision, both global and regional, is a priority and requires co-creation by citizens, governments, and industries, informed by scientific expertise and protected from corporate interference.”

It concludes: “With sufficient daring from the world’s governments, the flexibility, creativity and social nature of human behaviour can achieve a just transition to net zero, thereby protecting the health of current and future generations.”

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