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Zero Carbon Britain: Making it Happen

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It’s now almost ten years since CAT’s first Zero Carbon Britain report was published. Today zero carbon is becoming a much more commonly accepted goal – but we urgently need to make it happen! Paul Allen introduces a new report, due out in spring, that looks at the barriers to getting to zero and how these can be overcome.

On 5 October 2016, the threshold number of signatories to the Paris Agreement was achieved, enabling it to enter into force on 4 November 2016. This historic agreement is underpinned by a global consensus of science that clearly recognises the need to reach zero carbon. Fortunately, a wide range of detailed scenarios and real-life practical projects clearly demonstrate that we already have the tools and technologies needed to get us there. 

But we cannot, and will not, make change happen with technical solutions alone. More than anything, the actual barriers we face are psychological, social, economic and political. Changing how millions of people live is a rather special kind of problem – the forces that shape our lives exist on many different levels. Tackling such a complex global challenge requires a new kind of approach that joins up research and practice across disciplines, borders, sectors and scales.

CAT’s new report Zero Carbon Britain: Making it Happen, due out in spring, is our response to this challenge. Based on a broad literature review, it offers insights into how we can overcome the barriers to zero carbon, from peer-reviewed journals as well as books, reports and articles. We explored psychology, sociology, geography, political science, economics and other social sciences, as well as faith, spiritual practice, arts and culture; developing dialogues with researchers working in each of these fields to ensure our findings are supported by good evidence.

We have also included insights from individuals and organisations delivering real-life projects on the ground, highlighting how they have overcome barriers in innovative ways.

What needs to change?

Being able to envisage positive change is a powerful first step. Drawn from CAT’s Zero Carbon Britain (ZCB) research, the report opens with ‘Postcards from the Future’ to help us visualise what a zero carbon future could actually look like.

CAT’s research team then explored both where we are today and what needs to change in each of the four key sectors of our ZCB scenario: food, transport, buildings and energy. There needs to be a significant increase in installed renewable capacity for electricity and heat. We must reduce the amount of meat, especially beef and lamb, as well as dairy in the average UK diet. We must significantly reduce the need to drive or fly by improving public transport, increasing levels of walking and cycling and by providing incentives for alternatives. All vehicles need to be run on 100% renewable energy. New houses need to be built to zero-carbon standard and use low-carbon materials for construction, while existing buildings need to be retrofitted to significantly reduce energy demand. All of these changes can result in significant social, economic and environmental benefits.

Making it Happen

However, to deliver these actions, many of the deeper enabling changes are common across each of these four key sectors. In fact, many are bigger than any single sector and are best tackled at social or government levels. Below are a few examples drawn from the report.

Worldviews and values

The importance of feeling connected to nature is a well-recognised way of fostering pro-ecological behaviour. Helping people understand that their well-being is deeply interlinked with the protection of the natural world has been shown to foster more sustainable behaviour as well as leading to higher levels of health and well-being. Promoting more compassionate, intrinsic values is also important, so that these values become strengthened across society. In addition, reducing the focus on consumption needs to be better recognised as a positive shift that also increases well-being.

Global religions are now showing increasing unity around climate change, with many promoting less materialistic lifestyles, and engaging on climate both practically and politically. Inside and outside of organised religion, many people now seek spiritual experience that provides meaning in their lives. Practices such as meditation and mindfulness have been shown to foster greater compassion for others and can create more sustainable behaviour.

Arts have long been another powerful catalyst in transforming existing social norms, culture and worldviews. Arts can do what science, politics, academia, media and other disciplines simply cannot. It has the power to create spaces for dialogue, communicate information that might otherwise be alienating, bring communities together and make complex things understandable, and allow our imaginations to flourish, glimpsing other ways of seeing and feeling. It is from these experiences that new futures can emerge.


The current concentration of UK media ownership needs to be addressed, backed by a public campaign to build the necessary political support. While media misinformation is often hard to correct, it can and should be challenged.

Given the pervasive nature of advertising, there is clear need to better regulate the industry, banning advertising in public spaces and restricting advertising to children. The prevailing climate silence can be broken using stories that are more engaging and memorable than information alone, backed by positive images that can have a strong mobilising effect. Communication that highlights the positive benefits of action on climate is more effective in promoting action than fear-driven messages.

With limited resources the use of low-cost accessible social media utilising clever and engaging online communications can enable rapid communication with a global audience to counter misinformation and can mobilise large numbers of people very quickly, as well as driving the news traffic.

Psychology and behaviour change

Individual and community action is a vital part of the solution, and positive stories of what can be practically achieved help counter feelings of helplessness, demonstrate that other people care, and show that actions do make a difference. But expectations for individual behaviour change must be more closely linked to the wider structural changes needed in society, industry and government needed to support them.

Carbon lock-in

Despite the many benefits of low carbon practices, fossil fuel systems are perpetuated by technical and institutional co-evolution – a process described as ‘carbon lock-in’. Overcoming this involves innovation at a local level; thousands of community groups across the UK are developing practical, positive examples of the zero carbon transition. While many community scale projects are small, they empower and connect people, help expand the political choices available, give people a sense of agency and help normalise sustainable behaviours. Government support is needed to scale up these community actions, in the form of a long-term strategy and provision of necessary the resources.

Re-thinking planning can help reduce car dependency through measures such as car-free developments, higher densities for housing and tighter parking provision. Making zero carbon alternatives more convenient and attractive is also essential – for example making walking and cycling safer by the provision of segregated paths and reduced traffic speeds, or combining energy works with general home repairs, maintenance or improvements.

Economics and finance

Moving on from the current economic model, with its emphasis on giving power to markets, can facilitate a more co-operative, fairer, enriching, resilient and sustainable economic system. A shift from a narrow focus on economic growth and GDP could transform how society sets out its goals and evaluates our progress towards them.

Removing the massive subsidies currently given to fossil fuels and making all energy choices pay their full social or environmental costs will help level the playing field. Local and municipal banks and citizen finance can provide investment for zero carbon measures, whilst low/zero interest ‘pay-as-you-save’ loans could be offered for energy efficiency measures, building on successful examples from around the world.

New business and ownership models can prioritise environmental and social benefits as much as economic returns; these include energy co-operatives, social enterprises, new energy supply models and municipally owned companies. Re-claiming key assets like the railways or national grid back into public ownership could ensure that the necessary improvements take place and profits are reinvested for the public good rather than being distributed to shareholders.

Politics and governance

Political action requires increasing the visibility of climate change amongst voters. In addition, providing clear evidence that workable solutions already exist gives politicians no place to hide. Powerful vested interests and their undue influence on the regulatory process can be challenged through shareholder action and divestment campaigns, as well as by increased transparency.

Mass social movements bringing together a broad range of groups will be needed to drive political support as individual issues may not be strong enough on their own. Forging a sense of collective identity and finding common values is vital. Throughout history radical voices have challenged and helped overturn systems of injustice, and helped shift the window of political possibility.

Cross-party political support for both policy and action can be built by framing communications appropriately and by the use of trusted communicators. Political risk can also be reduced by directly linking climate policies with complementary policies such as health. New laws are needed, such as an international law on ecocide. Here in Wales, a groundbreaking new law requires public bodies to consider the well-being of future generations in decision-making. Legal access for citizens to challenge public policy also needs to be improved.


Our hesitation to believe that this zero carbon transition is possible is, in itself, one of the key barriers to achieving that shift. Yet history shows that radical social and technological changes are possible, and can occur over just a few years. All the technologies we require already exist, improvements are constantly emerging and costs are falling.

Although it requires deep changes in a wide range of systems, it should not be seen as burdensome or a return to the past, but rather one of the most exciting opportunities in human history. Isolated, stressful, consumer-focused lifestyles can be replaced by a sense of connection with community and with nature, delivering enormous benefits in physical health and psychological wellbeing.

The overarching headline is that we need to do this together. It will take many of us pulling in the same direction to enable change, and each and every one of our actions can contribute to making a zero carbon future happen!

Zero Carbon Britain: Making it Happen will be published in the spring at