A blueprint to change public behaviour to cut carbon emissions, including levies on high-carbon food and a reduction in frequent flying, was published by the government alongside its net zero strategy on Tuesday but was withdrawn within a few hours.
Recommendations in the blueprint are in contrast to Boris Johnson’s promise in the strategy foreword that transitioning to net zero could happen without sacrificing the things we love. “This strategy shows how we can build back greener, without so much as a hair shirt in sight,” the foreword stated.
“In 2050 we will still be driving cars, flying planes and heating our homes, but our cars will be electric, gliding silently around our cities, our planes will be zero emission, allowing us to fly guilt-free, and our homes will be heated by cheap, reliable power drawn from the winds of the North Sea.”
The blueprint, however, emphasises that tackling the climate crisis requires “significant behavioural change”. According to the document, titled Net Zero: principles for successful behaviour change initiatives, and produced by the behavioural insights team, or “nudge unit”, the British public may have to reduce its demand for high-carbon activities such as flying and eating ruminant meat, among other changes.
The report raises concerns over the expansion of airports contained in government policy and tax exemptions given to the aviation sector. “The UK government can lead by example, and recognise the hugely impactful signal it sends to, for example, approve airport expansions, or financially support the airline industry with little demands for decarbonisation in return,” the removed report states. It says a more realistic transition to net zero would be through tactics including reducing the number of frequent business flyers.
The report outlines nine key principles needed to change public behaviour to meet net zero. These include making clear to people what changes they have to make, making those changes easy and affordable, and aligning commercial interests with net zero outcomes.
It recommends tax and statutory interventions to force change, including carbon taxes, a financial levy on food with a high-emission footprint, using the law to force the public to change, and forcing the markets to be more transparent to enable consumers to choose more sustainable options.
“Laws … matter and can powerfully cement emerging shifts in normative values,” the report says. “Looking at past government-led initiatives, significant societal behaviour changes related to, for instance, reductions in harm from smoking, increasing worker or motor vehicle safety or uptake of vaccinations have all involved taxes, bans, mandates and other regulatory measures beyond soft persuasion.
“We do not have time to nudge our way to net zero, and so a focus on building sufficient political capital and public support to instigate bolder action will be needed.”
Behavioural change will be vital if we are to reach net zero, according to the Climate Change Committee, which pointed out in its sixth carbon budget that about 60% of the emissions savings that need to be made over the next 15 years will come from a combination of behaviour and technology.
The issue is a difficult one for the Conservatives, who fear that many of their supporters will resist anything too top-down, such as a meat tax or a levy on frequent flyers.
Dr Alex Chapman, a senior researcher at the New Economics Foundation, said the government had not included any mention of aviation in its strategy, and government analysis found the strategy would lead to no material reduction in air travel emissions between now and 2037.
“At the heart of this is the government’s refusal to accept that we cannot continue to grow the size of the aviation sector in a climate emergency. Betting on the rollout of as-yet-undeveloped miracle technologies represents a huge gamble with our futures,” Chapman said.
“Now, with this hastily withdrawn research paper, we learn that the government is in fact well aware of this contradiction. Indeed … major concerns are raised about the ongoing expansion of UK airports and the current tax exemptions enjoyed by the aviation sector. It is time the government stopped living a delusion and took meaningful action to prevent aviation emissions driving us off a climate cliff.”
The report says that politicians and policymakers could suffer from “optimism/overconfidence bias – the more so, the more senior they are”.
It also says implementation of policies is everything. It says the government should push the message that it is following the science, as it has in the Covid-19 pandemic, and it calls for close cooperation with experts.
The report says changing behaviours requires a clear narrative from the government, which is not easy. “We must recognise that we are often asking people to swim against the current if the cheap, readily available, enjoyable, convenient, normal and default option is the unsustainable one.
“This is often the case: it’s hard to avoid plastic packaging when the shops are full of it; hard to drive an [electric vehicle] if you don’t have off-street parking to install a charge point; hard to take the train when the plane is cheaper and quicker; hard to give up red meat when our shops, restaurants and cultural norms are brimming with it.”
The document said it would be extremely important to ask for public behavioural change: acceptance of changes to policy and infrastructure; willingness to adopt new technologies; and direct individual action.
A government spokesperson said: “This was an academic research paper, not government policy. We have no plans whatsoever to dictate consumer behaviour in this way. For that reason, our net zero strategy published yesterday contained no such plans.”