HomePolitical leadershipWe won’t save our planet unless we plug the ‘people gap’

We won’t save our planet unless we plug the ‘people gap’

This post is by Leah Davis, head of policy and external affairs at New Philanthropy Capital.

People in Britain support environmental action, in theory at least. The polls show this, as does the readiness of mass membership nature groups to mobilise. So have we already won the battle for public support?

Unfortunately, the answer is no. Whatever the polls show, we are not seeing those poll results translate into radical lifestyle changes, or into government policies that make them easier. And, without such actions, worthy intentions will still lead us to environmental disaster.

People rarely get a mention in government net zero documents. The focus instead is on technical, economic and political solutions. That’s not wrong. Indeed, these very approaches have won commitment from successive prime ministers to ambitious climate targets, forests of offshore wind turbines and green belt protection.

But, for what comes next, technical, political and economic solutions won’t be enough. Radical lifestyle changes demand the involvement of people. Take home insulation for example. Most schemes have focused on cavity walls and lofts, the easy wins. They are relatively cheap and cause little disturbance. But what about the eight million homes in the UK, nearly a third of all homes, built with solid walls? These need insulation which will costs thousands, possibly tens of thousands of pounds? Even if you can get over the cost barrier through subsidy, the personal upheaval for the not inconsequential number of homes needing internal solid wall insulation can’t be underestimated.

There’s a gap in action
So people have to be part of the solution and have a say. That means they must be empowered to create the solutions that work for them. Right now, we’re not doing that. Or at least, not in the ways we need to be. The environment movement has a ‘people gap’.

There are plenty of activities involving people in environmental action, but it happens at either end of a spectrum. At one end, large campaigns like Show the Love, the Youth Strikes, and letter writing campaigns have mobilised supporters to call for new government policies. At the other, there are small scale projects that help people make changes, such as connecting with nature, planting trees or community solar.

But what’s missing is the middle ground, the action to help people make bigger changes in their lives, like tricky solid wall insulation. Of course, we need government and businesses to overcome regulatory and cost barriers first. But, for interventions to work, we need to know more about what would motivate people to go through the hassle, and how it would affect them. This ‘people gap’ is the missing piece of the puzzle.

To do this, we can’t rely on a top down ‘decide now, ask later’ approach. We must embrace a more bottom up approach to understand people’s lives and priorities, the challenges they face and involve them in deciding solutions that work best for them. Only then will we truly move towards overcoming the barriers and make progress at the scale necessary.

Policy has to take people’s priorities into account
There is already impressive work happening in this territory, including Climate Citizens, the People’s Assemblies for Nature and IPPR’s Environmental Justice Commission. But as standalone projects, their influence is limited. Policy advocates should be using all these insights.

And it should include everyone. Too often policy makers focus on the easy win of so called ‘able to pay’ consumers. But, people on low incomes, some minority ethnic communities, and people who are young, older, disabled or live with health conditions are likely to be worst affected by the environmental crises, have the most to gain from taking action, whether for cleaner air or cheaper bills, and have the most to lose from bad policy.

Public engagement can be hindered by other social challenges and so people’s priorities have to be taken into account. At a recent NPC roundtable with groups working with ethnic minority communities, participants shared how environmentalism continues to be influenced by colonial history, which discourages involvement, highlighting that any policy solutions must recognise both colonialism and racism. At another roundtable, charities working with older people and disabled people explained that they were more focused on the immediate cost of living crisis. We have a real opportunity to find solutions that work for people and planet, but we have to understand their priorities first.

Environmental and social charities are well placed to plug this ‘people gap’. That’s why, at NPC, we’re working with over 30 organisations from the social and environmental sectors and listening to people from different social groups about their environmental priorities. We want to identify where social and environmental charities have common ground on policies that can encourage environmental action. To succeed in averting the worst impacts of climate change and reverse nature’s decline, we have to do more to put people at the heart of the decisions that will affect them.

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Green Alliance is a charity and independent think tank focused on ambitious leadership and increased political support for environmental solutions in the UK. This blog provides space for commentary and analysis around environmental politics and policy issues as they affect the UK. The views of external contributors do not necessarily represent those of Green Alliance.