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The road to net zero

18 February 2020

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In late January, a group of academics and policy makers gathered at Christ’s College in Cambridge to discuss the challenges posed, and opportunities presented, by the transition to a net zero economy.

Leading the discussion were Julian Critchlow, Director General for Energy Transformation and Clean Growth at BEIS, Cambridge Senior Lecturer Dr Kamiar Mohaddes, and Professor Dame Theresa Marteau, Director of the University of Cambridge’s of Behaviour and Health Research Unit.

With the UK government having committed to cutting emissions with the goal of reaching net zero by 2050, speakers throughout the evening highlighted that there needs to be a concerted effort to change people’s behaviours and make significant adjustments as a country.

The transition to net zero will require the implementation of changes across almost all sectors of the British economy, including significant changes to operations in the transport, energy, business, construction and natural resource sectors. Throughout the evening, the transition ahead was compared to that experienced during the industrial revolution – it must be quick and supported by both industry and policy. While there have already been some innovation success stories in areas such as offshore wind and green finance, there is still a need to consider the timescales needed for systems-wide transitions in areas such as home heating. Promisingly, policymakers expect that there will be a faster market penetration of environmentally friendly products as costs decrease. In the transportation sector for example, the electric vehicles are expected to reach cost parity with petrol cars by 2025.

While the development of policy interventions and innovations must be part of the response to climate change, Dame Theresa dryly noted that we already have a raft of effective interventions which aren’t being effectively implemented, due to inertia and lack of behavioural change. Encouraging behavioural change and increasing public demand for solutions which are good for population health and the environment will involve small tweaks in approaches to influencing behaviour. Here, behavioural change can be successfully influence through taxation, changing the choices on offer for people, and framing policies in ways which increase public acceptability. Dame Theresa was quick to praise citizens assemblies as a possible change implementation mechanism, and to highlight that when people are shown evidence that a policy works, their support for it goes up.

Throughout this transition, there will be a need to consider how changing people’s long-established behaviours will impact the British economy, emphasized Dr Mohaddes. While speakers throughout the evening made it clear that the benefits of climate action will outweigh the economic risks of inaction, particularly given the implications of warming for our weather patterns and coastlines, we need to ensure that we avoid major social dislocation during the transition. A just transition, speakers suggested, is possible – and there will be opportunities throughout the transition to build a society that is not only greener, but one that is also healthier.

Photo credit: Palash Chakma - Windmill - https://flic.kr/p/DcPM7e