Story-telling: making the case for climate action

For two months this year, electricity generation from UK solar eclipsed that from coal. Granted, it was in the summer, but it is nevertheless significant to see the future overtaking the past. To energy policy experts this isn’t surprising: July was sunny, and coal is viewed as a poor investment. But when I mentioned this to a friend over the weekend, her response was one of perfect confusion: “So, why don’t we ever hear the good news about renewables?

Faced with austerity, policy experts and commentators focussed on proving the business case for investment and intervention in the low carbon economy. This should not have been difficult: the sector continued to grow rapidly even after the 2008 crash, turning over £121.7 billion in 2013 and employing 460,600 people. Energy efficiency is a particularly impressive performer in productivity terms – responsible for around 94,200 jobs and a disproportionately high £7.3 billion of Gross Value Added to the wider economy.

We have the hard economic modelling to back this up, showing that ambitious decarbonisation can outperform business as usual in terms of future economic growth (an increase of UK GDP by 1.1% in net terms, with average householders financially better off against business as usual scenarios where little is done to reduce emissions).  With around 45% of all new energy capacity worldwide now renewable, we thought we had spotted an opportunity for the UK to lead the next global industrial revolution – and we thought the numbers more than justified supportive policy and government investment.

In reality, a positive economic narrative alone has failed to get the job done. The Committee on Climate Change recently warned government that there is a growing gap between our commitments on climate change and what government policy will deliver.  Instead, we need to reach people emotionally about what decarbonisation looks like, speaking to their values as well as their wallets – as a more detailed look at energy efficiency policy should tell us.

Investments in energy efficiency offer big returns. Consumers benefit from bill reductions and there are wider social gains, such as a reduction in NHS admissions for respiratory illnesses following the retrofit of the homes of vulnerable people. A mass-retrofit of UK buildings would offer better value for money as an infrastructure commitment than High Speed 2. Yet, shortly after the last general election, subsidies for products and regulatory standards for new homes were scrapped. The indignation of industry, policy experts, and campaigners focussed on the economic short-termism of the cuts. The numbers added up. What more could have been done?  

Well, it’s possible that we were all having the wrong argument – or at least the right argument in the wrong way. Climate change communications tend to be negative, with the solutions often presented as a “loss” rather than a “gain”. For energy efficiency, for example, consumers have been concerned about lost loft space, the cost of installation, or changing ‘the feel’ of their homes. Psychological research has shown that negative or reactive messages can undermine trust in the long-term; not only do negative stereotypes prevent immediate action but they also stick, and undermine the wider case for change.

People with centre-right values are more likely both to believe negative misconceptions about low carbon solutions and to reject overall climate change messaging which they view as “doom-mongering”. The absence of a distinctively centre-right vision for climate change action might go some way to explain why greater doubt exists among Conservative MPs about climate science than for parliamentarians in other parties.

All of this suggests that we need to reach a broader audience, with a language and set of values that work for all voters. Without this, relying on numbers will not be enough to win the argument for rapid decarbonisation. Fortunately, the messages already exist – they have just gone unnoticed, as returning finally to energy efficiency again can illustrate.

As I write this I am sitting in WWF’s headquarters, the Living Planet Centre, in Woking. It is built using the cutting edge of low carbon, energy efficient technology. When we show guests around it, we focus on the business case for the building – we talk about the operational savings that come from switching to a ground source heat pump, or how much energy our solar panels generate on a given day. We talk, too, about some of the building’s secondary impacts, as part of the urban regeneration of Woking, or the improved wellbeing and productivity of our staff.

But what we often forget to do is point out that The Living Planet Centre is just a better building than most new buildings. It is also beautiful, an upturned ship of glass and wood which sits back into the green landscape of canal and heritage Surrey woodland. We should be able to make a case to the British public to say: “The changes we need to make to decarbonise our lives are also changes that will improve our lives - they will be more socially positive, economically beneficial, and (on occasion) more beautiful than sticking with the way we do things now.” We need story-tellers now, as well as economists.

Emma Pinchbeck is Head of Energy and Climate policy at WWF UK

The views expressed in this article are those of the author, not necessarily those of Bright Blue.