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Net zero: A just transition is necessary, and is key for maintaining public support

We need a just transition to net zero. Supporting low income families through the transition is not just the right thing to do, it is essential for winning the political case and gaining consent for sustained and ambitious climate action.

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Over the weekend delegates from around the world have landed in Glasgow for Cop26, the UN climate change conference. The UK is hoping to use its presidency to galvanise world leaders to action – securing key commitments that will speed progress beyond current national targets.

However, as recent events in the US show, many leaders face issues promoting these agendas at home where climate denial has given way to climate delay.

The UK is no different. While the salience of climate change and the desire to act on it is high with the public, and the existing narratives of climate denial have been largely rendered absurd in the face of the profound impacts of global heating which are being felt through wildfires, floods and droughts across the globe, a vocal minority of politicians and media commentators are challenging the cost of the transition to net zero and how these costs – through levies, taxation and direct costs to households – will impact those on the lowest income, using this to frustrate progress to net zero.

These concerns are not entirely unfounded. It is people on the lowest incomes who have contributed least to the carbon problem who will face the greatest risks from climate change and are least able to bear the costs of the transition to net zero, as evidenced in JRF research and confirmed in the Government's net zero strategy and review. There is a cruel injustice that those who currently pay proportionately most in green levies on their energy bills are the most likely to be rationing their energy costs because they cannot afford to keep their homes warm. But leaving these inequities unchallenged, and failing to take advantage of the opportunities that a transition to net zero should create, would be a political choice, not an inevitability.

In response, we need a just transition to net zero, one that does no harm to those on low incomes, while also combating these social challenges.

Such an approach in the UK must focus on three areas:

The fair distribution of transition costs
Adequate support must be in place to help lower income households to adopt new low carbon technologies. The costs of transition (passed to households through taxes and levies) should be shared broadly.

The just transition of the workforce
Those employed in polluting industries, and the communities that rely heavily on these sectors, should be supported in the transition to net zero.

The equitable investment in climate resilience
Our approach must confront that relatively more deprived neighbourhoods are the most exposed to the effects of climate change.

JRF has been doing some thinking on the first of these, the fair distribution of costs. Addressing this requires action in two areas.

Firstly, ensuring that the transition to net zero is achieved in a progressive manner.

To this end, JRF has been working with the Zero Carbon Campaign and IPPR to bring together environmental and social justice organisations to show how an equitable transition to net zero can be achieved. We defined a series of principles for the transition, which included:

  • Making sure the costs and benefits of the transition are spread fairly across all incomes. This means the poorest won’t proportionally pay more, but also that they are able to share in the benefits of moving to low carbon technologies.
  • Offering support, such as grants, and financial incentives to encourage people to choose low carbon options well before penalties for using high carbon alternatives come in.
  • Creating a decision-making process that gives people (particularly those most affected on low incomes) genuine control over what happens rather than being asked to comment on policies already agreed.
  • Making sure that climate policies to address poverty go beyond financial support. They should include educating and informing people so they understand the new technologies on offer and how they can benefit from them.

There is more to do here, particularly on translating these principles into tangible action, but working together, this ought to act as a framework for poverty and climate lobbies in holding governments to account on their commitments around equity.

Secondly, we must challenge our current economic model that means so many live in economic insecurity, while at the same time our consumption far exceeds safe planetary boundaries.

We must take this moment of change and use it to develop new models for the provision of key services – power, warmth, travel, for example – in ways that are socially just and environmentally sound from the outset.

Many are already showing us how this can be done.

Communities across the country are already working together, illustrated by organisation such as the Carbon Co-op in Greater Manchester, to create more just energy systems. They are thinking about how more energy can be generated in communities and on individual homes, insulating households from increases in prices like those we are currently seeing.

The community-led housing movement is delivering homes which are more environmentally sustainable. Homes which act as anchors for more sustainable behaviours that reduce car use and share resources and amenities, such as LILAC in Leeds.

Organisations like Bankers Without Boundaries are utilising existing approaches and knowledge to support investment in large scale clean infrastructure, supporting the rapid decarbonisation of cities and countries.

As we confront the challenge of decarbonisation, much more of this creative thinking must be unleashed and, crucially, scaled. Socially and environmentally sound models must become the norm.

Prioritising low-income families and supporting them through the net zero transition is not just the right thing to do, it is essential for winning the political case and gaining consent for sustained and ambitious climate action.

Fighting climate change and helping people on lower incomes should not be seen as competing aims. This is an opportunity to do things differently – to ensure that life’s essentials don’t cost the earth.