Getting to Net Zero – the battle ahead

UK governments have a battle on their hands convincing the public to get behind their net-zero plans, writes Home Group’s Nusheen Hussain

When COP26 gets underway on Halloween, it’s unlikely to be the horror show for the UK’s Governments some commentators are predicting, but there’s likely to be a few scary moments along the way. 

Because if, as expected, UK delegates are asked what Britain thinks of their net-zero plans and targets, there could be some uncomfortable shuffling in seats and glances around the table – especially so, if the results of a poll out last month are reflective of the UK.

A YouGov poll, which surveyed over 2,000 members of the public from across  Britain, suggests governments have a significant amount of work to do if the public is to get aboard their net-zero journeys.

The poll, aimed at understanding perceptions on sustainability generally, but specifically relating to peoples’ homes, shows that although the public is clear about the importance of protecting the planet for future generations, people are some way off understanding what part they play.    

The poll, commissioned by Home Group, found that while 80% of respondents felt environmental sustainability was important, almost half of those asked (44%) hadn’t heard of the phrase net-zero (42% in Scotland).  65% of people asked said they were oblivious to any Government net-zero targets. In Scotland that figure was 71%.

For those in social housing the disparity was even broader. 63% of people had not heard of net-zero and 69% weren’t aware of Governments targets.

A similar picture emerged when questioned on more sustainable forms of heating in the home, and the costs associated with them.

By far the most significant hurdle putting people off moving from traditional heat sources like gas to new forms of heating is cost. 59% of respondents felt that alternative heat sources such as solar panels, or ground and air source heating, are too expensive. 

Furthermore, potentially another barrier to embracing environmental sustainability in the home, was technology. 40% of adults agreed that such technology was too complicated. 24% did not know.

There were quite wide variances when respondents were asked if they thought home energy costs would increase, decrease or stay the same with environmentally sustainable heating sources. 40% thought they would increase while 30% thought they would decrease, and 20% did not know. 

Overall, the clear conclusion drawn from the fairly in-depth survey is that the vast majority of people are not as engaged as they should be, largely because there isn’t enough information out there to help them understand the terminology, targets or technology.  

But, if the UK’s Governments are going to achieve their ambitious net-zero targets, it’s imperative they do all they can to help people embrace new ways of living, starting in the home. In order for that to happen people need to be fully aware of what that entails. 

They need to be across the technology, the cost implications, the support available and to enter the marketplace with confidence.

We do need to recognise that there is a lot of sceptism about these new and emerging technologies, and the reversal from a few years ago when the English Government promoted diesel vehicles still lingers. 

We know there needs to be dramatic improvement and investment in alternative heat sources. We know there’s not enough of a competitive dynamic, and nowhere near enough R&D being undertaken because there isn’t enough critical mass in the sector. As a result, we know the product isn’t always consumer friendly, nor likely to stand the test of time. We also know there’s a colossal shortfall in the number of skilled professionals needed and, currently, a mighty void in the ability to train to scale.

However, addressing the above, as crucial as it is, could be fruitless if we don’t begin the engagement process with our customers, and the wider public. If not now, when?

At junctures like this we have seen in the past how important public awareness campaigns can be. 

Campaigns have ran as far back as I can remember. From the Learn to Swim messages with Mike and Petunia in the 1970s to today’s Covid-19 campaigns. 

The most successful I recall is the campaign to switch from analogue to digital, probably because I was heavily involved with it during my time working on the BBC’s digital switchover.

The switchover campaign was successful for a number of reasons. As well as being funded to the tune of £200m, it began long before the switchover was to take place. It knew the challenges ahead and was prepared for them. 

The challenges they faced were, in part, similar to the ones we have now for net-zero – having to engage and communicate with an audience geographically spread, and harder to reach communities, demographically diverse, generally resistant to change and uncomfortable with new technology, and the perceived costs associated with it.

After Digital UK delivered the successful switchover campaign it revealed its top ten tips for implementing an effective campaign on this scale. 

The main one I recall is ‘think holistically’. Real momentum, they said, is created when government, industry, sectors and communities all work together.

Housing associations absolutely have a role to play in helping customers embrace sustainability in the home. And most of us are doing that. The newly formed Greener Futures Partnership will play an important role in and out of our sector in this space.

But, as a sector, we haven’t the reach nor the resource needed to achieve the same level of impact as the switchover campaign. With a clear and consistent umbrella message, Governments need to be the campaign drivers, supported by the likes of ourselves, energy providers, local authorities and others. 

The scepticism that is rightly there needs to be addressed by the campaign, but it shouldn’t mean it can’t get off the blocks. 

That way the 80% of those in the survey who know that protecting the environment is important will be able to join and support Governments on their net-zero journeys.

A commitment from Governments for such a campaign is highly unlikely to come before COP26 – if at all – which means UK delegates should know which one is on its way when trick or treat comes round this Halloween.

Nusheen Hussain is Executive Director of Business Development at Home Group, and its lead on sustainability, as well as a member of the Greener Futures Partnership.