Households could make big emissions reductions with right Government support

An independent report for the UK Committee on Climate Change by an Imperial expert recommends policies that will help people make greener choices.

The Government is legally committed to reaching a ‘net zero’ UK economy by 2050. Net zero is when a region (such as a city or country) balances the carbon they emit with the carbon they remove.

Individuals and households can make choices that emit less carbon, for example by taking a train rather than flying or driving, but the information or incentives for people to do so are often lacking.

Policies are needed now to make low-carbon choices more accessible, affordable, attractive and fair for households. Dr Richard Carmichael

The new report recommends policy actions the Government can take to encourage people to make low-carbon choices across surface transport and aviation, domestic heating and diet.

These include investing in cycling infrastructure and providing grants for electronic bikes; reopening old rail and bus routes to reduce dependency on cars; and introducing environmental labelling for food.

Report author Dr Richard Carmichael, from the Centre for Environmental Policy at Imperial, said: “The science and the targets for Net Zero are clear and many people are willing to do their bit but the challenge ahead is huge and time is limited. Policies are needed now to make low-carbon choices more accessible, affordable, attractive and fair for households.

“Consumers need support to take actions that will deliver large emissions reductions, but these need not be costly or require big lifestyle changes, and many come with co-benefits – such as air quality improvements in towns and cities from switching to electric vehicles, less diet-related disease and preserving biodiversity.

“These changes are unlikely to happen quickly enough if the Government does not remove obstacles currently frustrating the behavioural and societal shifts needed.”

Transport and aviation: promoting electric vehicle adoption and discouraging frequent flying

The report suggests a number of measures to reduce car dependency, ownership and use including a programme of investment across rail and bus networks; grants for e-bikes and development of cycling infrastructure; and further support for car clubs.

Electric vehicles are a large focus of the report, which recommends strengthening incentives to reduce upfront and running costs to encourage companies to run fleets of electric vehicles, as well as ‘vehicle to grid‘ systems. In these systems, electric vehicle users buy electricity from the grid during low-demand, cheaper periods and sell it back during high demand. In this way electric vehicles supply valuable flexibility to the national grid.

To tackle growing demand in aviation, the report suggests levies for frequent fliers and banning of air miles programmes that incentivise flying. Just 15 percent of people in the UK are responsible for 70 percent of flights, so these schemes could discourage additional flying by those who fly most often without increasing the cost of a ticket for the majority of households taking an annual holiday in the sun.

Diet: lowering the impact from consumers, producers and waste

Lowering barriers to more plant-based diets is a theme, including broadening choice by making sure at least one plant-based (vegan) option is available to anyone every day on all public-sector menus and training catering staff in plant-based cooking skills.

Funding is also suggested for research and development in food technology for meat-replacement products, which present an opportunity for UK industry with global markets.

The report also points to the wide variation in emissions between producers of the same foodstuff and underlines the potential of environmental-impact labelling for food based on validated data from each food producer rather than just the type of food (i.e. generic ‘beef’ figures).

This information could enable consumers to choose lower-impact foods and lower-impact brands and could also provide the basis for implementing revised agricultural subsidies, most of which currently support livestock farming.

Standardised environmental impact and nutritional labels would also allow each household to get personalised feedback on their overall shopping habits, potentially causing greater shifts in consumption than individual food labels alone.

Interventions to reduce food waste are also covered, such as having weekly food waste kerbside collections and food best-by dates less confusing.

Domestic heating: making the most of heat pumps

Just as cars running on fossil fuels can be replaced with electric vehicles, there is an opportunity for low-carbon electric heating. Electric heat pumps are systems that take heat either from the ground or the external air and transfer it inside, to be used in heating and hot water. They can also be added to existing gas central heating systems to create a hybrid heat pump, featuring smart controls that optimise the use of cheaper electricity from renewable sources.

The report recommends policy to make these systems more cost-competitive and advocates for better use of real-world data and digital comparison tools (similar to price comparison websites) to enable households to make more informed adoption decisions.

The report, ‘Behaviour change, public engagement and Net Zero‘ by Richard Carmichael is published by the Committee on Climate Change.

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