Sam Hampton ESRC NIA - Accelerating Carbon Capability for an Equitable, Sustainable Society (ACCESS)

Project: Research council

Project Details


The effects of climate change are now being felt around the world, and without a drastic reduction in carbon emissions, billions of people will suffer. 2019 saw protests calling for greater action from governments, and the UK passed legislation for a net-zero carbon economy by 2050. This year, COVID-19 has profoundly altered everyday life and increased the desire amongst more individuals and communities to lead lower carbon lifestyles.

However, the challenge is enormous. To achieve international climate targets, the 8% predicted fall in 2020 emissions resulting from the pandemic needs to be achieved every year for the next 10 years. In September, the UK Climate Assembly highlighted the need for changes to everyday practices and routines across all of society, and called for education, choice and fairness to underpin the path to net zero.

Unfortunately, making low carbon choices can be difficult for individuals. Understanding where carbon emissions arise often requires technical knowledge, and it can be hard to tell fact from fiction when it comes to 'green' claims from businesses and politicians. Even if individuals are motivated, it is not just knowledge they need to lead lower carbon lifestyles. Substantial emissions come from essential everyday activities like heating homes or sending emails. 'Decarbonising' these is difficult and expensive for individuals and families, such as replacing gas boilers for those living in cities. Community-level action can be more effective at achieving change: groups might lobby politicians for subsidies on cleaner boilers, or even implement district heating solutions themselves.

There is a need to understand how our diverse population can become more 'carbon capable' (CC). This means enabling and empowering individuals to lead low carbon lives that they judge to have value and purpose.

Just as carbon footprints vary, so will solutions for different people. The example of heating homes illustrates this: district heating may work for dense, urban areas, but in rural areas heat pumps and biomass boilers may be more suitable. And it's not just geography that matters: diet, travel habits, heating preferences and the use of carbon-saving technologies like smart-meters and thermostats all vary according to factors such as age, educational attainment, income, ethnicity and employment status. So how can CC be enhanced and accelerated amongst diverse groups in society?

This research addresses this question through four tasks.

First, a national survey on CC will be issued in 2021 and again in 2023, to monitor change in CC as the UK recovers from COVID-19 and related economic recession. Household energy usage data will also be collected over this period and used to calculate carbon footprints.

Secondly, in-depth fieldwork will be conducted with four distinct groups in the UK: (1) social housing tenants on low incomes; (2) people aged over-60 who make little use of digital technologies; (3) first-generation immigrant communities; and (4) businesses with less than 10 staff who have adapted to home-working during the pandemic. This task will generate in-depth insights into what it will take to accelerate CC amongst these 'hard-to-reach' groups.

In Task 3, the concept of carbon capability will be developed theoretically, drawing on Tasks 1 and 2 and an extensive review of social scientific literature. Models for carbon capability amongst different groups will be created and tested with participants and other stakeholders.

Task 4 involves working with community groups, businesses and government officials to produce practical solutions for increasing carbon capability amongst the four groups in Task 2.

This project can help the UK to achieve its net-zero carbon ambitions. It will explain how and why carbon footprints are changing in the UK, and work with stakeholders to identify and pursue opportunities for empowering individuals to lead fulfilling, low carbon lives.
Effective start/end date1/10/2131/05/25


  • Economic and Social Research Council


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