Net-zero Emissions: Behaviour Change Debate

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Department: Cabinet Office

Net-zero Emissions: Behaviour Change

Lord Browne of Ladyton Excerpts
Thursday 20th October 2022

(1 year, 7 months ago)

Lords Chamber
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Lord Browne of Ladyton Portrait Lord Browne of Ladyton (Lab)
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My Lords, I am also a member of the Environment and Climate Change Committee, and I congratulate the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford on securing this extremely timely debate so soon after the publication of our committee’s report on the importance of changes to people’s behaviour, by which I mean the importance of securing changes to our behaviour to achieve the legal target of net zero by 2050. I also congratulate the right reverend Prelate on his excellent opening remarks, which set the scene and tone for the debate well.

The Question tabled underlay much of the proceedings of our committee’s inquiry. Helped by the last contribution, this short debate centres on whether the Government have a role to play in encouraging change that will contribute to a lessening of our emissions. It also centres on what that that role is and whether such initiatives are, in themselves, unreasonably restrictive, nannying, bossy or any other word plucked from the Rolodex of adjectives employed reflexively by those ideologically suspicious of any attempt by the state to engage in any way with individual freedom of choice. Lastly, it centres on whether such behaviour change will make a substantive contribution to smoothing our path to net zero.

In conducting this inquiry, the Select Committee heard evidence from across government, industry and the third sector, but I was particularly struck by the evidence we received from former members of the Climate Assembly. Like the vast majority of witnesses, they made it clear in their testimony that the public supported behaviour change and that they were looking for greater government leadership to make it happen. It is unfortunate that the pandemic eclipsed the report’s release in September 2020 and that it consequently gained rather less public traction than its contents deserve. It makes clear that the participants in the assembly regarded cross-party co-operation as essential, that government has a significant educative function in mobilising public consent for the changes needed and that the deliberative process involved in the assembly had motivated each of them to make changes in their individual consumer choices designed to minimise their environmental impact. This is perhaps the best evidence we heard of the effect that education and knowledge can have in prompting individuals to make decisions for the collective good.

To address the concerns of those who feel that the cause of net zero is being hijacked by a group who wish us to regress to some kind of pre-industrial world, I gently point out that at no point in the 550 pages of the assembly’s report is any mention made of abolishing industry, travel and the edifice of post-modern capitalism and returning to some prelapsarian world structured around our circadian rhythms. The citizens’ assembly on climate change was not constrained by moderating voices from inside or, much more importantly, outside government, which allowed it to apply the common sense that led it to balance the demands of business and individuals, supply chains and customers, and individual choice and broader social goods in its deliberations.

Our report takes the same approach. Led by the evidence, we concluded, as we record in the summary:

“People want to know how to play their part in tackling climate change and environmental damage, and the Government is in a unique position to guide the public in changing their behaviours. The Government should provide clarity to individuals about the changes we need to make, in how we travel, what we eat and buy, and how we use energy at home, and should articulate the many co-benefits to health and wellbeing of taking those steps. A public engagement strategy, both to communicate a national narrative and build support for getting to net zero, is urgently required. Behavioural science evidence and best practice show that a combination of policy levers, including regulation and fiscal incentives, must be used by Government, alongside clear communication, as part of a joined-up approach to overcome the barriers to making low-carbon choices. A behavioural lens must be applied consistently—

and this is the important one—

“across all government departments, as too many policies … are still encouraging high carbon and low nature choices.”

To address the concerns of those who feel that the cause of net zero is being hijacked by those who wish that regression, I encourage them—including, with respect, the noble Lord, Lord Frost—to actually read both reports before levelling these groundless accusations.

In short, the role the public wish the Government to play is that of an enabler, not an enforcer. Both the assembly’s report and ours are clear that it and we do not wish this—or any future Government—to remove the power of decision-making from individuals. We want them to fashion a context in which the gap between ethical and practical decision-making is closed. For those who wish to preserve individual liberty, including the noble Lord, surely a context within which people can make the decisions they wish to make, on an ethical basis rather than by purely practical considerations, is desirable.