Government scientists seek real-world insight for net-zero policymaking

Project will look at how social and behaviour changes will impact the government’s 2050 ambitions
Chief scientific adviser Patrick Vallance. Photo: Photoshot for CSW

By Jim Dunton

15 Nov 2021

The Government Office for Science has launched a year-long research project that aims to understand how different public behaviours could affect ministers’ goal of turning the UK into a net-zero carbon emissions economy by 2050.

GO-Science said achieving net zero will be as much a societal challenge as a technical one, with public norms, practices and behaviours playing a significant role in emissions reduction – and with all of them uncertain and likely to change in the future. 

It said the just-launched Foresight Project will inform the government’s long-term net-zero strategy and departmental policymaking. In the process, it will enable stress-testing of policies and assumptions against “plausible societal futures”.

The Office said that between now and “late 2022”, the project will produce an expert evidence review and a set of future scenarios and their implications for the energy system and different groups within society.

“It will examine trend data on behaviours that drive energy demand and emissions, explore how they may change in the future, and then develop holistic socio-technical scenarios that consider potential impacts of changes in both society and technology,” it said.

“This will help explore critical interdependencies, trade-offs, and indirect effects of potential shifts in different pathways to net zero.”

GO-Science said the final report will present the project’s findings along with the likely trade-offs and spill-over effects of each scenario. The office will also develop a guide on how policy teams in government can use the outputs.

Chief scientific adviser Patrick Vallance said the project will offer vital insight to ensure the UK’s long-term strategy stayed on the right track.

“If we are to keep warming below 1.5C, changes within society will matter as much as big technological changes,” he said.  

“Through this research we can understand the impact of potential societal changes on our path to achieving net zero.”

GO-Science said the government’s commitment to achieving net zero carbon emissions by 2050 – enshrined in legislation in 2019 by then-prime minister Theresa May – will require a reduction in UK net greenhouse gas emissions of 100% relative to their levels in 1990.

Earlier this year a report from the Institute for Government warned that resourcing policy teams properly and ironing out conflicts of interest between departments will be crucial for meeting the 2050 target.

Report authors Will McDowall and Colm Britchfield said decarbonising the UK economy will be a massive challenge that was expected to come with a price tag running into hundreds of billions of pounds. They also pointed to the failure of schemes such as the Green Homes Grant as indicative of the magnitude of the policy task ahead.

Despite the 28-year window for the UK to reach net zero, senior IfG researcher McDowall said there are probably only three parliaments left for the government and its successors to get much of the policy needed “in place and working”.

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