How can brands navigate the UK’s net zero retreat?

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No matter where you look, the great cleanup is truly underway. In less than a decade the concept of net zero has moved from science to policy to mainstream conversation and is now a priority for many businesses and governments around the world.

‘Many’ must be emphasised here. Some leaders have given the quest for sustainability a cold shoulder, while others – who were initially congratulating themselves as the ‘world leaders’ - have since scaled back on their ambitions.

With a General Election looming in the UK, climate change is likely to be a key focus of manifestos. Recent by-elections and ULEZ expansions have shone a spotlight on public opinions towards taxing polluting vehicles, leading to the Conservative government stripping back environmental ambitions. Prime Minster Rishi Sunak suggested that he could not impose the "unacceptable costs" on British families in pursuit of net zero, and has since watered down policies from the phasing out of gas boilers in favour of heat pumps and ban on petrol and diesel cars.

The change in mood music has left many businesses facing a comms challenge. Net zero remains a holy grail for most; nearly a third of CEOs plan to invest more than 10% of their revenues toward sustainability measures and programs. Shareholders are also voicing concerns, leading to a sharp lurch towards ESG incentives. But with the public and government discourse showing indications of eco-fatigue, comms leaders will be cautious about where to tread next.

Here’s how we believe brands can navigate an increasingly polarised conversation:

  1. Follow science, not politics...: While some polls indicate that sentiment may be diminishing, the vast majority of the UK public is still firmly behind the country's net-zero target, regardless of which political party they support. Businesses will also look to responsible suppliers and vendors to meet their own ESG targets. Brands must therefore continue to ground their practices on renowned Science Based Targets initiative, not follow with knee-jerk reactions to the government – especially when a new party could realistically be leading within a year. With greenwashing regulations likely to be enforced over the coming months, brands must ensure that they can demonstrate accountabilities for all eco-claims. 

  2. … but acknowledge the conversation has changed: There is a portion of the public which is jaded by the climate change debate, and feel that they have suffered due to a number of high-profile protests and policies. The time for big sensationalist pledges and stunts by brands may be over, but brands must keep the light on with a constant drumbeat of eco-guided comms. 

  3. Understand that change begins with small actions: The importance of politics can never be understated, but the public will still look to businesses to drive progress when it comes to net zero. Communicators must continue to champion the change we can all make – supporting and backing initiatives and activities from a grassroots level up. Equally, the intersectionality of climate change must be acknowledged; not every individual can take on the same environmental action, but we can all do one thing.

With the government’s retreat from net zero, the climate conversation has become increasingly nuanced, and will continue to evolve over the coming years. Demonstrating a proactive commitment to eco-action while not alienating a jaded audience will certainly emerge as a key battleground for PR & comms teams across the country.

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