Blog: The Climate Challenge: Making Net Zero Socially Inclusive

Image credit: Mary Tallontire (artist)

By Carolyn Snell, University of York and Lucie Middlemiss, University of Leeds

As winter approaches, we are acutely aware of the challenges associated with the cost of living crisis, with families bracing themselves in expectation of the cold. The climate crisis also looms as an existential threat to wellbeing. The proffered solutions to the climate crisis in the UK, a policy area commonly referred to as the ‘Transition to Net Zero’, or ‘Net Zero’ for short, will have an extensive impact on many aspects of people’s everyday life. The transition to Net Zero represents a radical reshaping of society, with practical impacts on how we live, where we go, and the political and social choices that we are able to make.

Given that policies for a transition to Net Zero have to build from where we are now, there is important work to be done in designing an inclusive Net Zero: a world in which we both meet our climate change targets, and improve conditions for those who are struggling. In Net Zero’s radical reshaping of society, there is a high risk of people being left behind, because they do not have the means to fully participate in this changed society.

The risks and opportunities presented by net zero policies

Existing visions of the future (e.g. Climate Change Committee 2020; CREDS 2021) are dominated by stories of how day-to-day lives are likely to change over the forthcoming decades including living in low-carbon homes, travelling less by car, working in low-carbon jobs, eating less meat.

For example, our homes and the way we live are likely to change substantially over the next few decades as part of the Net Zero transition.  Older homes will need to be retrofitted to make them more energy efficient. We will also see a much greater use of energy saving smart technology, significant changes to heating infrastructure including a shift from gas to electricity, increased use of hydrogen and heat pumps, and greater use of heat networks.  Similarly, significant changes to mobility patterns and transport infrastructure are likely as petrol and diesel cars are phased out in favour of electric vehicles, greater emphasis placed on ‘active’ travel (walking and cycling), and efforts made to reduce travel and car ownership, with an increase in working at home, more car sharing, and more ‘low transport’ neighbourhoods. These changes will affect our lives in many far reaching ways – shaping how we access goods and services, socialise, work, and study.

The risk of these changes is that they have the potential to both exacerbate existing social, economic, and spatial inequalities, and to create new ones. Indeed, it is a well versed argument that environmental policy has the potential to exacerbate and produce further vulnerabilities. We often talk rather glibly about ‘not leaving anyone behind’ in the Net Zero transition. To convince people that we are serious about this, we must acknowledge that people and communities are not on a level playing field, and as such, not all people are entering the transition equally. Being on a low income, being from a specific minority group (e.g. being disabled, being from an ethnic minority) or living in a place which is poorly served by public infrastructure (e.g. peripheral towns in the North of England) will all determine how people are able to engage with the changes presented by Net Zero policies.

In addition to acknowledging the interplay between existing inequalities and Net Zero policies, the consequences of ‘being left behind’ also need greater recognition as these are often multi-faceted and dynamic. For example, people unable to upgrade their home heating systems or to an electric vehicle are predicted to face higher costs related to an end in fossil fuel subsidies, and changes in tax structures (Markkanen and Anger-Kraavi, 2019), and over time will begin to face higher costs and difficulties in accessing maintenance and servicing (Simcock et al., 2021).

What does an inclusive NZ look like?

Plans for a socially inclusive Net Zero will need to take account of existing inequalities, and people’s uneven starting points, and will involve some concerted work to build inclusivity.  In particular any future plans will need to avoid exacerbating inequalities or creating new inequalities through Net Zero policy. On a more positive note, Net Zero policy and practice has the opportunity to actively reduce existing inequalities, thereby creating a fairer and more inclusive society (as well as a Net Zero one). For example, the changes to domestic housing described above have great potential – in combination they can often reduce energy costs, improve thermal comfort, and overall quality of life.  Indeed, at present the installation of energy efficiency measures is currently used by UK policymakers as a means of tackling fuel poverty.

In order to be inclusive, Net Zero policies will require people to be able to make economic decisions which allow them to change the way they live their lives in order to reduce their carbon footprint. Having the money is not the only challenge, however. A supportive policy environment that enables new skills, education and training, adapted public services, and community facilities will all play a role in the creation of an inclusive transition to Net Zero.  A simple means of ensuring that this takes place, is to design Net Zero policy to address both climate concerns, and alleviate social exclusion simultaneously. This could involve creating climate positive and socially inclusive infrastructure: for instance, providing accessible and green public transport, or wholesale housing retrofit services.

We also argue that inclusive Net Zero policy should be ‘person-centred’.  This means that we should seek to understand the cumulative effect of all the changes to people’s everyday lives. Taking a ‘person-centred’ approach means looking at everyday lives as a whole, and understanding the links and trade-offs between different aspects of everyday life. After all, people do not experience different policy areas as separate or distinct: for instance, travel to work can shape social life, which in turn is budgeted for in relation to housing expenses.

As argued in our recent work (Middlemiss et al 2023) , Snell et al 2023) there is a central role for Social Policy in supporting a socially inclusive, just transition to net zero. We believe that the engagement of social policy researchers in this field offers an opportunity to produce more people-centred, socially inclusive approaches in this field.


Centre for Research into Energy Demand Solutions (2021) The role of energy demand reduction in achieving net-zero in the UK. Centre for Research into Energy Demand Solutions, Oxford, UK.

Climate Change Committee (2020) Policies for the Sixth Carbon Budget and Net Zero.

Markkanen, S., Anger-Kraavi, A., (2019) Social impacts of climate change mitigation policies and their implications for inequality. Clim. Policy 19, 827–844.

Middlemiss, L., Snell, C., Morrison, E., Chzhen, Y., Owen, A., Kennedy, K.,  Carregha, T. (2023). Conceptualising socially inclusive environmental policy: A just transition to Net Zero. Social Policy and Society, 1-21. doi:10.1017/S1474746423000180

Simcock, N., Jenkins, K.E.H., Lacey-Barnacle, M., Martiskainen, M., Mattioli, G., Hopkins, D., 2021. Identifying double energy vulnerability: A systematic and narrative review of groups at-risk of energy and transport poverty in the global north. Energy Res. Soc. Sci. 82, 102351.

Snell, C., Anderson, S., & Thomson, H. (2023). If Not Now, Then When? Pathways to Embed Climate Change Within Social Policy. Social Policy and Society, 1-20. doi:10.1017/S1474746423000167

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