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The Scottish Parliament has set legally binding targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in Scotland. These targets are more ambitious[i] than those set at UK level. Meeting these targets will require households, businesses and communities in every part of Scotland to make substantial and wide-ranging changes to the way we live and work. This will include reducing consumption, changing the way we use natural resources, modifying buildings and adapting to new ways of buying and using goods and services.

The transition to net zero creates an opportunity to place consumers at the heart of both climate change strategies and the delivery of services that can help us meet these statutory targets. Delivery of net zero policy aims can take place alongside sustainable growth, improved employment opportunities and enhanced housing conditions. But these opportunities come at a challenging time. Consumers and businesses across the UK are facing huge financial pressures, with inflation currently at 10.7% [ii] and real disposable household incomes forecast to decline by more than 7% across 2022-2023 to 2023-2024.[iii]

A recent report by the Climate Challenge Committee concluded that the Scottish Government urgently needs to provide a quantified plan showing how it will achieve the emissions reductions required to meet its targets. While the interim target for 2020 was achieved, other milestones are not on track.[iv] Helping consumers to live, work, and travel more sustainably will play a crucial role in meeting future targets.

Research shows that consumers  are concerned about climate change and the environment and are keen to take action. However, many of us do not know what the most effective actions are or appreciate the scale of change required. For example, consumers are often engaged with interventions such as recycling, but may need more information, incentives or assistance to make more significant changes such as adopting low or zero emission forms of heating and transport.

There is an urgent need for leadership and clear messaging. Research demonstrates that in order to help consumers take action support and tools should be as accessible, affordable and trustworthy as possible.

Public messaging around climate change needs to be simplified, consistent and targeted at those groups who are currently least engaged or whose actions can have the most impact. Consumers need clear information that they can trust about what actions they can take and what impact changes will have. And advice agencies need to be adequately funded so that they can provide joined up advice. For example, taking a whole-building approach to home energy efficiency would mean providing consumers with information which identifies all the work needed to a property as well as advising on appropriate funding and how to schedule works in a way that minimises disruption and reduces cost and inconvenience.

The costs of making this transition will be significant, with the Scottish Government estimating that undertaking energy efficiency upgrades and installing low carbon heating systems could cost around £33 billion over the period to 2045.[v] Financial incentives and support will likely be needed by consumers, including small businesses, and this assistance must be proportionate, in place for an appropriate time and targeted towards those who most need help to make the transition.

Although these solutions are costly, the potential benefits are significant. A recent study by the University of Strathclyde Centre for Energy Policy concluded that real household income gains from reduced energy bills could trigger a sustained expansion of the economy, due to the level of real spending power freed up.[vi] While simply getting through the next month is likely to be at the forefront of consumers’ minds at the moment, making these changes could help the whole economy recover from what has been a hugely challenging few years.

Finally, a key area for improvement is building consumer trust. When consumers have negative experiences of trying to adopt green technologies, this reduces confidence and trust and may leave them unwilling to make future changes.

Since 2015, over 30% of Trading Standards Scotland casework has involved traders in the energy efficiency retrofit market, representing consumer detriment of over £4.5 million. [vii] In simple terms, this means that these consumers experienced something that caused them stress, cost them money, or took up their time. There have been particular issues around companies advertising on social media or making nuisance calls offering ‘funds’ and ‘schemes’ to replace boilers, windows and roofs. There are also instances of firms approaching consumers, falsely claiming to be authorised to provide such services under genuine government or local authority schemes.[viii] This risks individual consumers experiencing significant harm and reinforces the need for trusted sources of information and for continued intelligence and enforcement activities across this market. We need to ensure that when consumers try to do the right thing, they do not experience detriment as a result.

In short, consumers have a significant role to play in achieving a net zero society. If we are going to meet statutory targets in time, we need to give consumers the right tools and incentives to take action and to make the leap to a lower carbon future.

Endnotes

[i] The UK Government has committed to reaching net zero by 2050. The Scottish Government has committed to achieving the same target by 2045. Welsh targets are set out at https://www.legislation.gov.uk/anaw/2016/3 and Northern Ireland targets at https://www.legislation.gov.uk/nia/2022/31/enacted

[ii] Consumer price inflation, UK - Office for National Statistics

[iii] Economic and fiscal outlook - November 2022 - Office for Budget Responsibility (obr.uk)

[iv] Scottish Emission Targets & Progress in reducing emissions in Scotland – 2022 Report to Parliament - Climate Change Committee (theccc.org.uk)

[v] The Scottish Government, Housing to 2040, 2021

[vi] University of Strathclyde: Centre for Energy Policy, Meeting the UK’s energy efficiency goals: Securing greater wider economy benefits through longer term programmes

[vii] Trading Standards Scotland. Project Maxwell: Misleading Advertising for Energy Efficient Home Improvements

[viii] Trading Standards Scotland. Project Maxwell: Misleading Advertising for Energy Efficient Home Improvements