Bringing public engagement to the forefront of environmental policy change
Our research drove policy makers’ decision making by revealing strong public support for some of the major changes required for the UK to meet its net zero target.
Meeting the UK’s legislated net-zero commitment to tackle climate change requires extensive changes, not only to energy infrastructure but also to people’s social practices and behaviour. Our research demonstrated that there is major public support for a change to renewable energy sources and a more sustainable less wasteful economy, despite a common perception of public resistance to such a change.
This changed UK policymakers’ thinking and embedded public engagement within the Resources and Waste Strategy for England and the Scottish Energy Strategy. It also gained international reach through inclusion in the UN’s climate change communications guidance.
Key research findings
- Strong public willingness to move away from using limited polluting sources of energy and wasteful ways of using energy
- Public desire for an improved energy system for Britain delivered through a long-term integrated plan to simultaneously address the climate crisis, energy security and affordability
Researchers from the Understanding Risk Research Group at the School of Psychology, led two major projects to systematically investigate public attitudes to the transformation to renewable energy systems and the consumption changes required to meet the net-zero emissions target.
Project 1: Transforming the UK energy system: public values, attitudes and acceptability
The research team led a UK Energy Research Centre (UKERC) funded project to elicit greater understanding of public perceptions of changes to the whole energy system.
They achieved this by:
- Interviews with stakeholders
- Six one-day qualitative public workshops in England, Scotland and Wales
- UK representative quantitative survey.
The research found that most of the British public are overwhelmingly committed to moving away from fossil fuels towards a new energy system that is affordable but modern and safe.
Project 2: Centre for Industrial Energy, Materials and Products (CIE-MAP) project
Many of the emissions that contribute to our carbon footprint go unnoticed because they arise at the point at which a product is manufactured: so called ‘embodied emissions’. This project aimed to identify resource efficiency opportunities in the product supply chain, alongside new ways of using products and services (e.g. wider access to product repair, community sharing of tools and equipment), that could deliver a reduction in such industrial energy use.
Along with interviews and four two-day qualitative workshops, the team also ran a nationally representative survey to investigate public beliefs about scenarios for reducing the energy used in the production and manufacture of common consumer products.
Working alongside environmental economists from Leeds University the team concluded that by adopting the most popular resource efficiency strategies highlighted by their data the UK could cut the embodied emissions from manufacturing common household products such as cars, clothing, electronics, appliances and furniture by as much as 39%.
Essential values for projects to be accepted
A set of fundamental values were identified by the research team which would need to be met for energy system transformation and greener consumption to be socially acceptable. These values are:
- More efficient and less wasteful product design
- Environmental protection
- A secure, reliable and affordable system
- The change must be fair
- Not constraining people’s personal autonomy and freedom
- Continuous improvement and interconnectedness recognition.
Both research projects have attracted media interest from across the world, especially with the prioritisation of climate change in most governments' policies.
- Cherry, C. et al. 2018. Public acceptance of resource-efficiency strategies to mitigate climate change. Nature Climate Change 8 , pp.1007-1012. (10.1038/s41558-018-0298-3)
- Peake, L. et al., 2018. By popular demand: what people want from a resource efficient economy.
- Demski, C. , Pidgeon, N. and Spence, A. 2017. Effects of exemplar scenarios on public preferences for energy futures using the my2050 scenario-building tool. Nature Energy 2 (4) 17027. (10.1038/nenergy.2017.27)
- Demski, C. et al. 2015. Public values for energy system change. Global Environmental Change 34 , pp.59-69. (10.1016/j.gloenvcha.2015.06.014)
- Demski, C. , Spence, A. and Pidgeon, N. F. 2013. Transforming the UK energy system: public values, attitudes and acceptability - summary findings from a survey conducted August 2012. Project Report.London: UKERC