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COP26 is a chance to fast-track to net zero

by Kate Morrison, CAS Strategic Lead (Fair Markets team). 

This column was first published in the Herald on 21 July 2021.

Later this year the eyes of the world will be on Glasgow as the city hosts the UN Climate Change conference known as COP26. 

This event could be a significant milestone in the battle against climate change, and wouldn’t it be great if a ‘Glasgow Agreement’ was to signal a cut in harmful emissions globally? 

Scotland, for its part, has some of the most ambitious climate change targets on the planet, with a goal of net zero emissions by 2045.  

Citizens Advice Scotland supports net zero, and so do the majority of people we speak to. One of our roles is to act as the representative of Scotland’s consumers, to make sure their voice is not excluded or left out of these hallowed discussions.  

That’s why we recently commissioned some research to look at Scottish consumer attitudes towards climate change. The results, covered extensively in the Herald on Monday, show that people really aren’t clear about what net zero will mean for them. 

First, the good news. 68 per cent of Scottish adults support the moves towards net zero by 2045, with 41 per cent believing that reducing the impact of climate change should become more of a priority for the Scottish Government. In addition, 59 per cent thought that making homes more energy-efficient should be prioritised in the Scottish Government’s climate response. 

So there is clear support among consumers for net zero. The less good news, however, comes when we look at whether people understand what it will mean for them, in their everyday lives. 

We all know big macro changes will be required in our economy to meet these targets – e.g. more green tech, more recycling and better use of public transport. What isn’t understood so well is the need for all of us to make changes to our own homes. 

Our research found that 65 per cent of people have no identifiable energy-efficiency measures or renewable technologies installed in their home. And only 17 per cent believe that reducing water usage should be a priority. This despite the fact that water usage, including heating water for your shower or bath, accounts for 6 per cent of all UK carbon emissions - the same amount as the aviation industry.   

The most worrying statistic of all is that 90 per cent of people are un-aware that the gas heating systems in their home are unlikely to use hydrogen gas, and so will likely need to be replaced if Scotland is to achieve net zero. 

This is so important, because moving to new heating systems is going to be one of the first, and biggest, changes that individual consumers are going to have to make. Yet this polling suggests the overwhelming majority of people in Scotland are in the dark about that.  

What this means is that public information and awareness strategies need to move beyond the broad goal of supporting net zero and into the more granular detail of what specific changes individual households are going to need to make to help deliver it.  

Our research then looked at how this shift might be enabled. In other words, what levers could be used to convince people to make the necessary changes to their homes.  

Respondents were asked what might deter them from installing a low-carbon heating system. Unsurprisingly, cost was the biggest concern, with 67 per cent worried about up-front costs and 55 per cent concerned about the possibility of ending up with higher energy bills. 

This is the catch-22 of the net zero debate. People support the broad goal but worry about unknown costs  – particularly if they fear they’ll see no reduction in energy bills to justify the initial up-front costs.  

And this isn’t helped by the cost of living crisis we’re facing as a country. One in seven people in Scotland are struggling to cope on their present income - a number that could grow later this year as furlough winds down and Universal Credit is cut by £20 per week.  

Against that background, it’s not surprising that people are concerned about the cost of changing their heating systems. If you are struggling to feed your family every day and aren’t sure if you’ll be able to pay your bills this month, then your priorities are set for you.  

Policy-makers need to understand that they must take steps to help such people to make the changes necessary. Our research actually shows ways in which this can be done. However, it will however cost money. 

55 per cent of people say they’d be encouraged to install low-carbon heating if they were offered non-repayable grants that covered part of the cost, and 62 per cent say such grants would encourage them to install other energy-efficiency measures in their home too. 

Council Tax rebates in the years following installation were also seen as a way to encourage consumers to make the switch. 

The cost of providing such incentives on the scale needed would be significant. But putting it off for our children to deal with will only make climate action more expensive. Remember too that thousands of well-paid. skilled jobs will be created as we retro-fit existing housing stock.  

I think the UK’s independent Committee on Climate Change said it best: “Acting now will be cheaper than waiting to deal with the consequences. Government must lead that action.” 

So, as Scotland prepares to host this historic climate conference, we can take heart that there is broad public support for the goal of reducing emissions. The next step is to make sure that people understand the individual role they each have to play, and giving them the support they need to be able to play it.