At long last, the Prime Minister has created a department with ‘net zero’ in the title – but, in situating it with energy and security, Rishi Sunak underestimates both the ‘long emergency’ we face, and the scale of the challenge reaching net zero involves.  

That’s not just my belief; it reflects the UK government’s own assessment. The UK Energy Research Centre’s briefings – and the Treasury’s own Net Zero Review (2021) – state it is not just about where we get our energy, it’s about how we change our homes, economies, infrastructure, and ways of life to be more sustainable (UKERC, 2020). Indeed, the government’s independent review of progress toward net zero, published in January 2023, states: ‘Net zero is creating a new era of opportunity – but government, industry, and individuals need to act to make the most of the opportunities, reduce costs, and ensure we deliver successfully’. And the UN’s recent analysis is that we can still avoid catastrophic disaster from climate change caused by the increase in global temperatures beyond 1.5C through ‘urgent system-wide transformation’ (UNEP 2022a).  

This describes the opportunity for societal transformation that a successful transition presents, and the hurdles that threaten progress. And it shows that net zero is an opportunity of place, economy, and community — not a challenge of energy and security, or even just technology and economy. 

‘A challenge of participation’ 

Net zero is, therefore, not a challenge solely of energy regulation, infrastructure adaptation, and crisis mitigation — as the name of Sunak’s new department suggest. It is a challenge of participation. Participation of government, communities, businesses, councils, investors, hospitals, schools, universities, and the voluntary sector. Participation of every family and every household. Participation, democratically, in an agenda that needs to be government-led and people-powered; on a scale we have never experienced in history.  

There is much to be worked with within the government’s Mission Zero’ review – and much needed in terms of scaling ambition. It identified that more than half of the policies needed to achieve net zero require public engagement, but our own policy analysis finds that the majority of policies at the national and devolved nation level fall short of enabling the participation that is inclusive, and necessary. 

At the same time, we see thriving public-private partnerships working to effect inclusive change towards net zero for local places. And, in every local authority across the country, net zero is being looked at in the round, exploring green transport by thinking about policies that enable people to use it; considering what introducing more Electric Vehicle charging points means for the way wheelchairs and ambulances use pavements. Both the responsible business sector, and the local government sector, know net zero is where the policy areas of economy, innovation and community essentially intersect.  

Evidence for a thriving net zero future 

Our extensive programme, funded by the Nuffield Foundation, considers the evidence and assesses the capacity of every place and community to participate in net zero. We’re exploring how policy around transition to net zero can avoid or exacerbate social, economic, and environmental injustice affecting the poorest people in UK society, and how this varies across every local area in the UK. The government’s own analysis in 2021 stated that, if managed effectively by policy, there can be significant gains from net zero, and benefits in terms of population health and wellbeing. But we need to organise policy differently to accelerate and empower innovation towards net zero. 

We need evidence of ‘what works where’ to build sustainable and holistic, person-centred policies at the heart of government. The pandemic covered the resilience in our communities. Let’s organise policymaking to capitalise on this. Let’s work together in the places, economies, and communities that will be most impacted in our transition to net zero will most impact. And, in place of Sunak’s new, siloed Department for Energy, Security and Net Zero, let’s have a department for community, business and environment that supports ‘system-wide transformation’. 

Read more from Emily on this topic here 

Climate change Inequality Institute for Community Studies Local government & public services Systems change Posted on: 10 March 2023 Authors: Emily Morrison,


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