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Language barriers: UK net zero needs better vocabulary

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To date, the UK’s net zero transition has largely been presented to the public as a technical challenge that will be overcome by innovative technology, greater energy security, and some – quite vague – shifts to our way of life.

Debate in the public domain about the UK ‘going green’ has ranged from the overarching risk of global warming to small-scale choices – such as recycling, for example, or whether an electric vehicle is available for you. Given this narrative, we could all be forgiven for believing decarbonisation requires little community input or change to our daily lives, other than a readiness to ‘follow the science’ and be altruistic in our attitudes – and, potentially, with our money.

Unfortunately, this story doesn’t reflect reality. The truth is, we will not meet our net zero targets unless every single UK citizen and community participates in the transition, through making green choices.

Public understanding of the positive economic and social outcomes of transition is therefore vital. It will play a crucial role in supporting people to make these choices, building their confidence in net zero, and increasing engagement with any future changes required.

Technical terminology
A key problem here is language. The technical terminology and – all too often – jargon currently used, fails to convey the needs and benefits of transition, or describe the social and financial benefits we will gain from it.

At The Young Foundation, our research shows that these benefits – which include warmer, less damp homes; healthier neighbourhoods; more predictable future energy costs – are stronger drivers to engage in green choices than the language of ‘going green’ alone. This is because when things are tight – as, for the majority, they certainly are at the moment – we want to know our investments will deliver value for money, not just a feeling that we’ve made the right moral choice.

Another issue is that our current language fails to outline the diverse ways we as individuals can access support and engage or help plan for the changes we might make at different times and in different ways, according to our needs and circumstances, towards low-carbon living. This might include making greener transport choices, eating different foods, making adaptations to our homes, and myriad other shifts.

Further, because current net zero language is often extremely technical, it suggests this is a problem that can (or should) only be addressed by select few; ‘experts’ with the correct specialist knowledge, or by those with extensive free time to research the topic. This puts most of us off from engaging with the debate and purchasing net zero-specific technologies – despite the fact these could hugely benefit our finances and future.

For example, the word ‘retrofit’ bundles together insulation, secondary window glazing, filling gaps and cracks around your home, investing in a smart thermostat and installing alternative heating systems, such as a heat pump. By breaking retrofit down into simpler, practical actions and language, clearly describing how each would decarbonise our homes and reduce our energy bills, the transition would feel more attractive, achievable, and accessible.

Collaboration is crucial
To minimise the risk of people choosing not to engage with the net zero transition, it’s vital that our experience – especially our first interaction – is positive.We already face barriers that prevent us from engaging in the transition, such as technologies being too expensive (electric cars), or inaccessible (retrofit technology for private renters). It’s crucial that net zero language does not create a further barrier.

Meaningful, relevant, community-focused language and literature would support people on their own transition journeys. Locally relevant public information on how a specific neighbourhood can make a shift to being greener – or what might be possible for your area, city, or region – makes the reality and the opportunity more tangible. For example, awareness-raising campaigns are more impactful when put in human terms, and when they advise people on low-cost decisions that demonstrably make a difference in the fight against climate change, working towards a fairer, greener, healthier future for homes and communities.

The ticking clock
The current framing of the net zero transition as an altruistic imperative for society and the planet can be difficult to engage with – especially when people are struggling to heat their homes or pay for food. Unless all communities see the value in the shift and feel motivated and able to take part, the resulting vacuum could be filled by ‘climate deniers’, framing the transition as callous and unneeded.
It also implies that those less well-off must wait for the wealthy to buy products, so that sectors can develop the economy of scale required to reduce the price, enabling the rest of society to engage. That approach cannot work; if the UK hopes to meet our 2050 target, everyone in every community must take part in the transition. The clock is ticking; we have just 26 years.

The true story of opportunity
Net zero transition gives people and communities the chance to lower their bills and access energy that is more secure – yet our current language doesn’t acknowledge, let alone celebrate this. Reframing could widen and increase the number of people prepared to engage, delivering social benefits as well as environmental ones. These include greater access to greener and safer spaces, improved mental and physical health, and the impact of energy security on long-term finances and UK and community stability.

The current language we use for net zero is stifling. Engaging more people in the UK’s transition is crucial – and if we are to be a leading nation, embracing the industrial, financial, and social benefits while meeting our carbon-neutral targets, we need to cut the jargon, and share a more accurate and compelling story.

Jacob Coburn is Knowledge Exchange Manager at non-profit NGO The Young Foundation, a not-for-profit organisation driving community research and social innovation.
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Image: Waldemar

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