The UK has committed to reducing carbon emissions with 80% by 2050. This is the Department for Energy and Climate Change’s 2050 Challenge. It is a colossal challenge that can only be met if radical changes are made to the way energy is produced and consumed. To illustrate: domestic energy use in the UK currently accounts for around a quarter of the UK’s total carbon emissions. This needs to be reduced to almost zero if the UK is to reach the goal. This means radical behaviour change is needed.

A recent report from Green Alliance, Bringing it Home, explores how government could help us to live more sustainably through a better understanding of human behaviour. One of the main messages of the report is that the “onus is on government to provide a clear vision and bold leadership”.

A useful model the report refers to is the 4-Es model the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs developed (A framework for pro-environmental behaviours, DEFRA, 2008). Useful because this categorisation helps build a clearer understanding of the actions that government needs to undertake to catalyse change. The 4 E’s are Encourage, Enable, Exemplify and Engage individuals and communities to live more sustainable lives. Unsurprisingly, that last E caught my particular attention. It is here that I think there is a need for radical behaviour change within government.

Green Alliance rightly highlights that, “Involving the public in decision making and in the design of projects can improve people’s acceptance of and commitment to sustainable living”. I agree. However, at the moment engaging the public with climate change issues is not happening on a very large scale.

The government is running a few programmes to engage with communities about low carbon futures. The Low Carbon Communities Challenge (LCCC) is an example of how communities are getting involved to achieve significant carbon reductions in their area. These communities are exploring pioneering approaches to becoming a low carbon community to, ultimately, help inspire and lead the rest of the country towards the same goal. The emerging results are encouraging, and I am looking forward to seeing how it impacts policy.

However, what I’m most interested in is: what will happen after the LCC Challenge has ended?

Local communities will have an important role to play in making changes that will contribute to reaching the national emission reduction targets. However, the magnitude of the challenge demands engagement programmes, like the LCCC, to be scaled up and rolled out across the country. It needs a Distributed Dialogue approach: a model that advocates the need for ongoing and active participation of citizens, where control of the conversation lies with both government and civil society; a conversation that requires government to play the vital role of creating an environment in which it can happen, but also requires it to give up trying to control all aspects of the conversation.

Such engagement will make use of networks of community leaders and activists to reach citizens at the local level. It will bring together, build on and increase existing community efforts to tackle global climate change. A practical way of encouraging and supporting these leaders is through engagement “kits”, which can be adapted to suit local needs. One example is a “kit” Involve is currently developing as part of a project with the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC). The kit contains guidance and resources to support community leaders to run a so-called ‘2050 Community Event’; local dialogues to deliberate different ‘pathways’ the country could or should work towards in reaching the 2050 target. Kits of this kind are one of the things we will need for developing wider and continuous engagement on climate change from government with the public*.

However, we must not forget that radical behaviour change is needed to reach an 80% reduction of emissions. Key to this is government radically changing the way they engage the public.

Climate change brings new ways and new vocabularies for government to engage the public in a debate about the type of society they want to live in and empowering communities to bring about change (Whitmarsh and O’Neill, 2010). Government should use these new ways, combining the best of grass roots approaches – like for example Transition Towns – with the organisational ability of government-directed initiatives.

This will require government to give up a degree of power and control. However, this does not mean government giving up its leadership role; far from it. This approach will still need strong leadership.

Which takes me back to the recommendations from the Green Alliance report: policy will be most effective if people believe that national government has a credible vision and a plan to support their own efforts to reduce carbon emissions.

*The “kit” will become available on the DECC website this summer. If you want to receive an email when the kit is ready, visit the DECC website to sign up: http://www.decc.gov.uk/en/content/cms/what_we_do/lc_uk/2050/2050.aspx