For a fair, inclusive zero-carbon transition, policy development needs to go hand-in-hand with public engagement


Leo Murray


If there’s one thing we know, it’s that the UK is in dire need of a zero-carbon transition.

With spiralling energy costs and record-breaking temperatures such a transition could not only help stabilise the energy markets, it could help us build a fairer, more inclusive, more sustainable country that is blazing a trail for others to follow on climate. If there is an opportunity for Britain to be a global leader in this crisis, now is the time to take action.

A question for many still revolves around how we get there. At a technical level, the solutions to the climate crisis are well understood. The real question is how we get there together

It’s quite easy for those of us coming up with ‘solutions’ or ‘strategies’ or ‘policies’ in order to get us out of this mess to fall into the trap of working in silos, looking at a problem and being focused on how to solve it. Viewed in a certain light, climate change is a simple problem that it’s easy to take that approach to – it’s caused by greenhouse gas emissions, therefore, we need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. It’s straightforward, right?

Not at all. In order for our zero-carbon transition to be both fair and inclusive, it is absolutely vital that anyone who is involved in policy work takes steps to ensure there is consummate public engagement accompanying your work. The transition is going to impact facets of everyone’s lives and as such, we need to actively involve the public in ways that are appropriate to your project. Official estimates suggest that up to two thirds of the total emission reductions we need to meet our climate targets rely on ordinary people changing aspects of their consumption behaviours en masse. The point here is that an effective pursuit of behavioural change is not an alternative to systemic change. Instead, both are dependent on one another.

In Possible’s Car Free Megacities project, we aimed to set up camaraderie and friendly rivalry between three cities, London, Paris and New York, in terms of traffic reduction efforts. Alongside this however, it gave us the space and time to think about how traffic reduction was being perceived in those cities, and to develop frameworks in order to respond to developing problems.

In response to the pandemic, many of the resulting low-traffic neighbourhoods were set up hastily as a way of getting people on the move more freely in a time of tight restrictions. In part as a result of their hasty establishment, these measures were sometimes perceived as part of the Covid restrictions and became especially contentious when the pandemic rules were relaxed. But one such group that is particularly important in all traffic reduction debates, are disabled people.

As such Car Free Megacities commissioned the report, Nobody Left Behind: Envisioning inclusive cities in a low-car future. The report had one focus in producing its policy recommendations – engaging with and incorporating the feedback of disabled people. And as such, our policy recommendations put first-hand accounts at their forefront. To name a few policy recommendations, it proposed accessible bike, trike, and scooter parking; disabled parking being close to, or integrated within, pedestrianised areas; and highlighted how new EV charging infrastructure should never be sited on pavements, where it adds to the clutter and obstacles that mobility impaired non-drivers have to navigate.

These recommendations were fundamentally underpinned by a process that sought to put disabled people first and make their lives better, rather than make carbon emissions reductions. But crucially, it succeeded in finding recommendations that would work towards both aims.

Another example is the frequent flyer levy. A major component of our aviation campaigning, the frequent flyer levy is designed to address the inequity of flying – ensuring that the 15 per cent of people that take 70 per cent of flights in the UK pay for their pollution. It essentially would mean that air passenger duty, which is currently applied to every flight, is removed and replaced with a levy that gets progressively higher the more a person flies. The first flight however, has no charge applied. Because most Brits fly rarely, this is an effective, strategic approach that would not affect the majority of the population who have little responsibility for air travel’s damage to the climate today.

We took this policy idea to the UK Climate Assembly – a gathering of over 100 people from all over the country and from all walks of life who were tasked with coming up with ideas to reduce emissions – and talked it through with them thoroughly. When we came away from that, the group called on the government to introduce it. Not only that but the policy polls consistently highly with the wider public. In polls we’ve commissioned it’s had support as remarkable as 54 per cent in support and just 19 opposed. In other polls support has reached a staggering 89 per cent.

But these moments of public engagement, of talking directly to and getting feedback and thoughts from a broader forum (in this case one selected to be representative of the British public) is vital if we’re going to implement intelligent, practical solutions to the climate crisis. And that’s because we’re ensuring that people’s voice is reflected within policy.

The climate crisis is the biggest problem that has even been posed to humanity. Polluting practices are endemic in our society, practices like flying, driving short distances, over-consumption, putting growth ahead of all other priorities, and as such, we’ve got so many smaller problems to solve in order to solve the one big one. But what’s vital to remember is that it is solvable. And through proper public engagement we not only create that chance to solve that problem, we bring everyone with us on the journey. 

Leo Murray is Director of Innovation at Possible. Inspiring Climate Action.

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