If we’re going to get to net zero by 2050, we need to make deep changes to how we all live and work - but we can't address the impacts of climate change without equally deep public involvement.
New research by Nesta’s Centre for Collective Intelligence Design finds that only one in eight people think the government has done a good job of involving citizens in making decisions on how climate change is tackled.
In our survey*, 72% of people said it’s important that they are given a say in how to reduce the UK's carbon emissions and transition to net-zero. Despite recent political trends, that included two thirds of Conservative voters (68%).
Unfortunately, almost half of respondents also rated the government poorly for its efforts to involve them (46%).
From our research and work on the COLDIGIT project we know that few institutions in local or central government are set up to work strategically on citizen engagement.
When asked what they thought the biggest barriers are to participation in taking action on climate change, people report not having the ability to influence key decision makers / politicians (39%) and feeling like they don’t have the right skills or not knowing what they could offer (36%). Only 12% reported it not being worth it or there being more important problems as a barrier.
This highlights a big problem for getting to net zero. The public wants to be more involved, yet feels like the government is doing a bad job of this and has low confidence in their own ability to influence decisions. At best this can lead to poorly designed policies, wasted resources and low impact, at its worst it can fuel conspiracy theories and resistance.
At a local level, the problem isn’t a lack of interest in involving the public. In our research with people working on participation in local government we found a high level of interest in involving the public, especially when it comes to enabling citizens to influence decision making, building trust, being more inclusive and taking action on climate change. But a lack of funding, and bureaucracy, were consistently ranked as the biggest issues holding back more public participation in local government.
The UK needs more and better use of democratic innovations that involve citizens in understanding problems, developing policies and making decisions. Many of the tools - from participatory budgeting to citizen assemblies and crowdsourcing of ideas and opinions from citizens are there for us to use and make the most of. Yet, we rarely do. And when we do, it is often as small scale pilots that aren’t sustained or scaled or given a real mandate to influence decision making.
In two new pieces of work by the Centre for Collective Intelligence Design we look at how this could be done.
Improving participation in local decision-making
Local governments should be given the funding and mandate for large scale public engagement. This will require setting up new teams that have the right skills to engage the public and ability to cut through existing processes and bureaucracy to connect citizen ideas and resources to political power. It will need flexibility to use both tried and tested solutions, such as participatory budgeting and experiment with new and innovative approaches such as The Strategy Room for net zero to broaden and deepen engagement.
Embedding participation in central government
Getting serious about public engagement (as has also been called for by the Climate Change Committee) will also require support and coordination from central government. To do this, we call for the creation of a Citizen Participation Service – a new unit within the Department for Energy Security and Net Zero, to help people participate in climate change policymaking, build community links and address the potential for public backlash on important net zero policies.
Interventions like this could help Britain tackle the climate crisis – and also help heal the wider rift between the public and the politicians and institutions governing them.
This is not a challenge isolated to how we involve the public in tackling climate change. Recent work by the Constitution Unit found that the UK Public is generally dissatisfied with the state of democracy in the UK. The Economist annual democracy index ranks the UK 18 out of 23 countries sharing the ‘full democracy’ label and placed 11th within western Europe. Similarly, The Institute for Government recently argued that ‘the UK’s model of democracy and government does not put citizens and their interests at the heart of decision making’.
Citizen involvement is too often seen as an added extra, something nice to do if you have the time, rather than as an essential and integral part of effective democratic decision making with a host of benefits.
But when people feel involved, they're more likely to take action and hold authorities accountable. This is vital for hitting our targets to cut emissions.
It's not just about ticking boxes — bringing in the public means getting a clearer picture of what's needed in different communities. Their insights and local knowledge can help shape strategies that actually work on the ground. Plus, involving people from across society ensures that policies are more adaptable and resilient in the face of climate challenges.
If we're serious about tackling climate change, getting everyone on board isn't just an option, it's a must-do for real, lasting change.
* Online poll conducted by Opinium between the 18th – 20th of October 2023 with 2,049 UK adults, weighted to be politically and nationally representative.