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Downing Street net zero policies ‘make poor poorer’

A new report warns that the current UK route to green transition risks pushing impoverished communities further into deprivation.

a black and white photo of a building with windows

Research conducted by Professor Lucie Middlemiss of the University of Leeds’ School of Earth Environment, and collegaues from the Institute for Community Studies at The Young Foundation, the University of York, and Trinity College Dublin has found that 40% of poorest households in Britain could fall into ‘transition poverty’. 

Through workshops with diverse groups living in Leeds and Newcastle, the teams identified a number of significant obstacles. These included not having the money to invest in home upgrades, having no agency to change how their home is run due to a lack of ownership, and facing long travel distances to access amenities, leisure, education and work destinations. 

Despite Downing Street’s much-touted levelling up agenda, the cost-of-living crisis is raising the barriers to participation in net zero transition among the most vulnerable in society. Those with debt, constrained spending power, people living in social or rented housing, and communities with fragile local economies all face the greatest obstacles.

Climate action on a personal level often involves changing how we live, travel, work, eat and entertain ourselves, but when those asked to cut down on these things already have limited opportunities, they are likely to become more excluded. According to the report, this can be avoided with more localised policymaking, taking into account the specific needs and issues facing different places, and the people living there.

Ultimately, it comes down to a well-managed transition, but trust in local or central governance to deliver this is low. As such, public conversations about what is needed, where, and when must become more commonplace to ensure any changes are relevant and suitable to the communities that will be impacted. This mirrors many Environment Journal reports on the dangers of leaving vast swathes of the population behind in net zero, feeding wider rhetoric fuelling so-called culture wars. 

‘While our participants were keen to play their part in the transition to net zero, they faced some important challenges in doing so. This is partly about being able to afford to invest in change at home and for the family. Low-income households are more likely to be left behind in the transition given that they don’t have money to spare,’ said Professor Middlemiss, co-author of the report and co-lead of academic output.’But other things prevent people from being able to act. Where you live, and the resources you have access to in your neighbourhood are really important.

‘In a future in which we expect to travel a lot less, we can see that people living in neighbourhoods that are far from leisure, education and work opportunities will struggle to meet their needs,’ she continued. ‘People are also constrained by the home they live in, particularly in terms of how suitable it is for low-carbon retrofit, as well as how likely they are either to find funds to make changes at home or persuade the building owner to make improvements. Overall, it is clear that plans for Net Zero are likely to increase inequalities, unless we make a concerted effort to address the barriers facing those on low incomes.’

A number of policy recommendations have now been made. The UK Government should work to remove the most significant barriers for the poorest households, devolve governance for net zero policy, allowing specific visions to be created for each geographic area, and engage the public meaningfully. Collective action and policy for net zero transition should be ‘built’, with local leaders, civic actors, and investors adopting a data-driven, place readiness approach.

It’s also imperative that trusted figures, including employers and investors, are engaged effectively, and the existing Climate Change Committee Risk Assessment is updated to provide a broader, truer picture of community and household vulnerabilities.

‘Our research shows there is a will, an appetite, and even an urgency amongst the public, including the most vulnerable and poorest households, to participate in the transition to net zero. But this has to be enabled through policy and practice that works with real people’s lives, and the places they live in,’ said Emily Morrison, Director of Sustainability and Just Transition at The Young Foundation.

‘Current policy will result in winners and losers through net zero transition, and we cannot let it become another part of UK policy that needs to be ‘levelled up’. If we build participation, rather than waiting to nudge people and hoping they’ll comply, and if we remove barriers, build on community assets, and maximise local readiness, we can reconcile decarbonisation with fair and just outcomes that mean decarbonisation does not leave anyone, or any place, behind,’ she continued.

You can read and download the full report here.

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