Why the UK Government Published, Then Deleted, a Paper Calling for Less Meat and Less Air Travel

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A report published to the UK’s Behavioural Insights Unit website recommending a national shift toward a plant-based diet and away from air travel as efforts to combat the climate crisis was deleted earlier this week by the Department for Business.

The report, titled Net Zero: Principles for Successful Behaviour Change Initiatives, which was published on Tuesday, suggested implementing “bold policy” and a tax on “high-carbon foods” such as meat and dairy, countered with incentives for local, plant-based food instead. 

“Laws … matter and can powerfully cement emerging shifts in normative values,” the report says. “Looking at past government-led initiatives, significant societal behaviour changes related to, for instance, reductions in harm from smoking, increasing worker or motor vehicle safety or uptake of vaccinations have all involved taxes, bans, mandates and other regulatory measures beyond soft persuasion.

“We do not have time to nudge our way to net zero, and so a focus on building sufficient political capital and public support to instigate bolder action will be needed.”

The report outlined nine steps that it claimed would help the country “build back greener,” and help future proof the UK. Steps included easy, clear, and affordable changes, including taxation and incentives, as well as working to align with commercial interests that have net-zero targets.

“In 2050 we will still be driving cars, flying planes and heating our homes, but our cars will be electric, gliding silently around our cities, our planes will be zero emission, allowing us to fly guilt-free, and our homes will be heated by cheap, reliable power drawn from the winds of the North Sea.”

Net-Zero Strategy

But a day after it was posted, the report was swiftly deleted by the Department for Business, which claimed that it was an academic paper, not official policy. The Department said it had been uploaded to the website in error.

“We have no plans whatsoever to dictate consumer behaviour in this way. For that reason, our Net Zero Strategy published yesterday contained no such plans,” it said. Among the recommendations were calls to increase the presence of plant-based food in government-run facilities including hospitals, schools, prisons, and military facilities. It urged the government to lead the way forward through taxation and policies that 

The paper called for action to decrease air travel and for the government to withdraw financial support for airport expansions without promises for decarbonization in return. 

“At the heart of this is the government’s refusal to accept that we cannot continue to grow the size of the aviation sector in a climate emergency. Betting on the rollout of as-yet-undeveloped miracle technologies represents a huge gamble with our futures,” Alex Chapman, a researcher at the New Economics Foundation, who posted the report to the foundation’s website after the Department took it down, told the Guardian.

“Now, with this hastily withdrawn research paper, we learn that the government is in fact well aware of this contradiction. Indeed … major concerns are raised about the ongoing expansion of UK airports and the current tax exemptions enjoyed by the aviation sector. It is time the government stopped living a delusion and took meaningful action to prevent aviation emissions driving us off a climate cliff.”

Behavioral changes must come via a “clear narrative” from the government, the report stated.

“We must recognise that we are often asking people to swim against the current if the cheap, readily available, enjoyable, convenient, normal and default option is the unsustainable one,” the report read.

“This is often the case: it’s hard to avoid plastic packaging when the shops are full of it; hard to drive an [electric vehicle] if you don’t have off-street parking to install a charge point; hard to take the train when the plane is cheaper and quicker; hard to give up red meat when our shops, restaurants and cultural norms are brimming with it.”


Lead image by John Bowe on Unsplash

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