Consumer Scotland has this week published detailed research with consumers in Scotland to map their engagement with the net zero agenda. The research report Consumers and the transition to net zero aimed to explore questions including: do consumers know what they might be expected to do to contribute to meeting net zero targets? Do they know where to go to find the information and advice they need in respect of these actions? And what concerns or barriers prevent consumers from adopting particular behavioural changes?
A novel feature of our research – which was undertaken with a large representative sample of Scottish consumers in spring 2023 – was its focus on specific issues in a wide range of different consumer markets. We asked consumers a range of questions related to their energy and water use at home, as well as a range of issues related to wider consumer markets, including household goods purchasing decisions, the use of public and private transport, emissions from parcel deliveries, food & drink behaviours, and recreation, with a focus on decisions around holidays for leisure.
So what did we find?
Consistent with other recent survey evidence, our research showed that climate change is very much on consumers’ agendas. Over three quarters of respondents are concerned about climate change, and fewer than one in ten are not concerned.
However, a significantly lower proportion of consumers say that environmental concerns and considerations influence their consumption decisions. The extent to which climate concern influences consumer choices varies by market and product type, but there is consistently a gap between stated concern for the environment, and behaviour. In fact, fewer than half of consumers say that concern for the environment influences their purchases of goods.
What are the reasons for this gap between consumers’ stated concerns about climate change and their actual behaviour? Our research points to several factors:
- Uncertainty about what they can do. We found that two thirds of consumers are either unsure or don’t know what they need to be doing to help Scotland achieve net zero emissions. Linked to this, a lack of information and advice, not only on major interventions such as home heating, but also in relation to the labelling of more regular food and clothing purchases
- Inconvenience and hassle. This is particularly the case for some of the ‘smaller’ types of behavioural change – like paying attention to what they dispose of down their toilet or sink (a significant amount of energy is used in treating wastewater) – especially where consumers don’t face any financial implications as a result of behavioural change
- Our survey shows that financial factors are a major barrier to behavioural change. This is particularly the case for some of the more significant interventions that people could make – whether that’s through home insulation and other energy efficiency improvements, investment in renewable technologies such as heat pumps, or in the decision to purchase an electric vehicle rather than a traditional fuel vehicle
What does all this mean? Most consumers care about the climate crisis and want to be part of the solution. But consumers’ social conscience and good intentions won’t be enough on their own to achieve the net zero targets.
Despite consumers’ widespread concern for the environment and climate change, our survey showed that consumers tend to view the responsibility for dealing with climate change as lying first and foremost with government and key industry players, rather than with consumers themselves.
We argue this demonstrates consumers want and need more support to help them make the collective changes to their behaviour that will support the transition to net zero.
Both the Scottish and UK parliaments have passed legislation aiming to reach net zero – by 2045 in Scotland and 2050 in the UK – meaning that after those dates we will no longer be adding to the total amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.
Setting targets is one thing; achieving them is another. Delivering on those targets will rely fundamentally on the attitudes, buy-in and behaviours of the public in their role as consumers.
Our research suggests that will require more proactive leadership from governments, regulators, and businesses to support and steer consumers. This will include the provision of meaningful and trustworthy information, incentives and financial support, and policy and regulation that supports consumers move away from the most polluting activities.
This was also the conclusion of the UK Climate Change Committee, which has pointed out that underlying progress in reducing emissions in Scotland has largely stalled in recent years. It is clear therefore that we are off pace in terms of the growing gap between targets and what’s happening on the ground in many areas, particularly where those depend on changing consumer behaviour. However, while consumers are key to achieving the net zero transition, they can’t make the transition without better support.
Subsequent blogs will consider in more detail where there is scope for policy to more proactively support consumers. In the longer term, we also intend to update our research to track how consumers’ engagement, attitudes, understanding and behaviours are evolving over time.