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Just how easy is it to be green?

As a famous frog once so succinctly sang – “Its not easy being green”.

Tackling climate change and the road to Net Zero was never going to be a simple or straight-forward journey.

There was always a strong chance that most would have to be dragged kicking and screaming along the path at some point.

But is there an argument to say that the politics of inequality is ensuring that particular struggle is more difficult for some than others?

As much as political egalitarianism is a lofty goal many Western democracies in particular aspire to, all too often it is the “do as I say, not as I do” approach that slips in and makes things even trickier.

It is not just the political leadership that sets the tone. Far too often those with the resources and ability to set the right example and help clear some of the obstacles on this difficult environmental path are the worst culprits when it comes to practicing what they preach.

The irony of the elite being air-lifted to safety from a giant muddy car park has not been lost

Paul Groves Paul Groves Editor of Specification

Money = emissions

Globally, the planet-heating pollution produced by billionaires is a million times higher than the average person outside the world's wealthiest 10%, according to a report from Oxfam.

It is not just the economic elite, there are numerous research reports that point out how the comparatively wealthy and economically comfortable make a huge contribution to climate change through carbon-hungry activities.

The damage dealt to the Nevada Desert by a multi-million-pound collection of RVs and SUVs after tens of thousands of Burning Man festivalgoers found themselves literally bogged down for days after torrential rain caused almost unprecedented flooding in one of the hottest and driest parts of the USA could take many years to repair.

Organisers of Burning Man explain the event as: “…to generate society that connects each individual to his or her creative powers, to participation in community, to the larger realm of civic life, and to the even greater world of nature that exists beyond society.”

The irony of the economic elite being air-lifted to safety whilst the site became a giant muddy car park for gas-guzzling vehicles has not been lost on some.

Whilst many of those trapped in their luxury vehicles for a few inconvenient days have spoken of their harrowing ordeal, a handful of local people will be working hard for a long time to clean up the havoc the festivalgoers left behind them.

The greenest PM ever

Closer to home and back to the political leadership, the approach has also been far too close to hypocritical for comfort.

From David Cameron making a trip to the Arctic Circle to declare himself the “greenest PM ever” and subsequently failing miserably to prove it, to Boris Johnson travelling by plane from London to Cornwall to host COP26 and talk about how we all need to make sensible choices in the fight against climate change, that “do as I say…” approach is never too far away.

There was a time when a Deputy PM was lambasted for his “2 Jags”, these days it appears acceptable for a PM to pick either a private jet or private helicopter for even the shortest trips to attend public engagements.

When it comes to climate change and Net Zero, a damaging and divisive disconnect exists between those in power and those with influence and the majority of us who are being expected to lead the way in protecting the environment.

The financial impact of being “green” is significant and during a cost-of-living crisis being told to act more responsibly by a politician with a penchant for private executive air travel is a little hard to swallow.

The reality of price rises

There is growing evidence that this disconnect is one of the major obstacles that Government seems willing to ignore.

Earlier this year, research by Orbit concluded that social housing providers must make net zero carbon more relevant to customers if they are to meet the challenge of decarbonisation.

The challenge of driving the behavioural changes to achieve net zero carbon goals at a time when residents are focused on the current cost of living crisis is not one that seems to be recognised the higher up the political and economic ladder you climb.

From talking to over 700 hundred households, it was clear that awareness and understanding of net zero carbon has not increased significantly among social housing residents since Orbit’s inaugural report on the topic was published in September 2021.

The report sheds light onto the creep of fuel poverty in the UK, with a greater proportion (80 per cent) spending more than 10 per cent of their income on energy costs compared to 71 per cent in 2021. There has also been a 50 per cent increase in the number of customers going without heat to save money in the past 12 months.

Just one in four respondents (26 per cent) said they were clear on what net zero means compared to 22 per cent in 2021. However, concern regarding climate change has increased, with 38 per cent saying that they were ‘very concerned’ compared to 30 per cent in 2021.

Amid spiralling energy costs, it’s not surprising that 75 per cent of those involved in the research said they are interested in changing their behaviours to become more energy efficient.

Less meat, fish and dairy

It is also financial considerations that were driving some increased sustainable behaviours such as people eating less meat, fish, and dairy products (63 per cent).

Marginal increases were seen in customers growing produce (29 per cent) and saving water (88 per cent), driven by a combination of protecting the environment, saving money and other factors.

And despite a willingness to embrace policies around recycling (94%) and restoring habitats for wildlife (92 per cent), there was a greater reticence among respondents to make the switch from gas boilers with just over half (53 per cent) in favour of such a move, again driven by financial concerns.

David March, Head of Environmental Sustainability at Orbit, said he was disappointed but not surprised by the slow progress on increasing knowledge and understanding of net zero carbon, explaining how. “It underlines the need to make the journey to net zero carbon personal and relevant to our customers,” he explained. “Rather than setting targets, we should talk about creating cheaper to heat, warm, comfortable homes.

“The somewhat low-key response to heating innovation is understandable and largely driven by a lack of reliable information. It highlights a knowledge gap and sometimes a misconception – and this is something that housing associations are well-placed to address with the support of our supply chain partners.”

Deafness about retrofit

It is an issue the Chartered Institute of Housing (CIH) is acutely aware of and looking to address. Yet concerted lobbying by the CIH and other bodies such as RIBA and the CIOB as regards the need for a national retrofit programme continues to fall on deaf ears amid the corridors of Westminster.

David March added: “It is clear from this research that if customer communications around the retrofitting programme focus on net zero carbon as a driver to engage customers, it would be a struggle to gain traction, whereas strong messaging around the environment and energy affordability would resonate.

“We have tested this and found it to be very much the case. In a series of roadshows and webinars over the past year we have found that customers are more inclined to buy into messages that have a clear call to action and personal benefit. Going forwards, we will continue to listen and learn from our customers and incorporate this approach in our retrofitting works.”

Although Kermit the Frog wasn’t referring to climate change when he first started to sing about the colour green, he did nail it when it comes to tackling the journey to Net Zero and combating climate change:

“It's not easy being green
“It seems you blend in with so many other ordinary things
“And people tend to pass you over…”

Being “green” needs to become a way of life for us all.

We need more “do as I say and also do as I do…please”.

Paul Groves is editor of Specification magazine