Conference write-up: Changing our behaviours to achieve net zero

Twenty eight of London’s local authorities have now declared climate emergencies. Yet even if councils do everything they can to reduce their own emissions, they account for such a small percentage of each borough’s overall emissions that it won’t make a big impact. In the first webinar of our Achieving Net Zero Digital Conference Week, we explored what the public and private sectors can do to embed holistic net zero thinking and drive behaviour change. This is a summary of some of the key themes and practical examples that emerged from our panel discussions and audience Q&A, but you can watch the video to get all the insights.

Driving behaviour change across the public and private sectors

The way a council influences a city or borough is through the decisions it makes. While Leeds City Council is aiming to be a net zero organisation by 2039, the bigger challenge is reducing emissions across the whole city. Tom Knowland, Head of Sustainable Energy and Climate Change at Leeds City Council, outlined how the Council is changing the way it makes decisions, by looking at how all of its guidance and reports will affect emissions targets and backing this up with training for all staff.

The role of the wider community is also vital, as Joe Baker, LB Haringey’s Head of Carbon Management, explained. In Haringey, the council is empowering community groups to drive behaviour change on their behalf, pushing the net zero message as a community rather than from the council to the community.

Picture of recycling campaign net zero behaviour change
London Recycles was one of the London Waste and Recycling Board’s flagship behaviour change campaigns. Image courtesy of Ali Moore.

Some behaviours will be harder to change than others, particularly when it comes to consuming less. What often stands in the way of behaviour change, according to Ali Moore, Head of Communications and Behaviour Change at The London Waste and Recycling Board, is not only the fact that the scale and complexity of the climate challenge is difficult for many people to grasp, but it’s also a low priority for a lot of people, particular those in vulnerable financial circumstances.

From a private-sector perspective, Nils Rage, Sustainable Design and Innovation Manager at Landsec, shared that clear leadership, easy-to-understand metrics and the right incentives are key to changing an organisation’s behaviour. Like Tom, he stressed that sustainability is everybody’s job, not just that of the sustainability professionals.

Tara Gbolade, Director, Gbolade Design Studio, echoed Nils point about the importance of a clear vision. The next steps are communicating that vision to everyone, including those who don’t listen, and ensuring that the vision has champions. She also stressed the need for a holistic approach, that is based on socio-economic sustainability as well as environmental sustainability.

The Covid crisis has shown that both individuals and organisations can radically change their behaviour

Covid-19 has made it impossible to separate achieving the net zero ambition from thinking about post-Covid recovery. For many local authorities, particularly those that have declared a climate emergency, the pandemic is an opportunity to re-think, re-plan and re-focus their resources and efforts on what they need to do to tackle the climate emergency faster.

Having less cars on the road during lockdown clearly demonstrated the benefits of better air quality and quieter streets. This has made it much easier for local authorities to engage with residents on policies that might have been more difficult to rollout pre-pandemic, such as low-traffic neighbourhoods – and the panel shared other ideas for how we can make the longer-term benefits more tangible in the here and now.

For example, Tom shared how, in Leeds, fewer cars on the road in Spring 2020 meant that the council could accelerate its district heating scheme and improve cycling infrastructure. This has helped communities see the benefits of a lower carbon lifestyle as we’ve come out of national lockdown.

However, Covid-19 has made community engagement much more difficult. Citizen Assemblies and Juries aren’t really compatible with social distancing, and there’s a risk that online engagement excludes those with poor broadband and low IT literacy from engaging with the net zero agenda.

Challenging silos and boosting cross-sector collaboration

The panel discussed the importance of working together to achieve net zero, and the practical steps to make this happen. The public sector is in position to create the market opportunities needed to achieve net zero, and can then work with the private sector on shaping the best way to deliver them. The private sector also has a role in delivering demonstrator projects, and then sharing the learnings and good practice with public-sector colleagues.

Slide with text on it net zero behaviour change
Image courtesy of Nils Rage.

To break down internal silos it’s important to communicate the net zero ambition across the whole organisation, networking with colleagues and being a source of advice rather than criticism. To embed sustainability, you need everyone within an organisation or involved in a development to buy in to the sustainability agenda. And to do this, you have to think about what the benefits are for them.

Co-benefits help ‘sell’ more sustainable behaviours

Working across teams and sectors, in a more holistic way, makes it easier to highlight the co-benefits of decisions and strategies aimed at achieving net zero. Taking a ‘fabric first’ approach to buildings, for example, is an economic as well as environmental consideration as it will mean lower energy bills for residents.

Similarly, the wider benefits of electric vehicles, such as improved air quality, means that local authority public health teams will join their sustainability colleagues to help make the business case for more electric vehicles and electric vehicle infrastructure.

Openly acknowledging the negative impacts of particular council policies and decisions means that the negative impacts then have to be justified and managed. This makes it much more likely that policy-makers will think more holistically about how to minimise the negative impacts and maximise the benefits.

Our Achieving Net Zero Case Studies have explored several of the issues raised by panellists and audience members in the webinar, including district heating networks and the circular economy.

 If you’d like to get involved with our Achieving Net Zero programme, get in touch with Anna Odedun, Head of Knowledge.