The cost of net zero

Kathryn Bonner
18 March, 24

The ‘Cost of Net Zero’, or CONZ, is a communications frame regularly used by those who oppose climate action that focuses on the financial costs of climate policies. A frame is the way an issue, story or argument is presented – helping us interpret something through a specific lens. By leading with short term costs of climate action, people tend to overvalue them and in turn ignore possible benefits of the policies while undervaluing the long-term costs of not taking action. In the UK, the Cost of Net Zero frames are often seeded by right wing think tanks, media and politicians.  

CONZ narratives often use a misinformation technique called cherry picking. By looking only at short-term costs or the costs of individual policies in isolation, climate policies are often framed as expensive, unpopular or inequitable. Ignored in the narratives are any potential economic gains from taking action or redistributive policies (such as grants or tax breaks) that would make the policies more equitable.

CONZ is a frame firmly set in the climate delay space. This means it assumes that climate change is happening, and that it is bad, but presents reasons to delay action into the future.

As with all adversarial narratives, there is a kernel of truth. The government does often need to be clearer about how net zero will be financed in ways that don’t penalise those who can’t afford it. However, commentators exploit this, criticising policies without offering constructive, scientifically valid solutions themselves.

Why does CONZ work?

  1. It taps into a genuine fear for Brits

This frame is salient because many Brits are worried about rising costs of living. A lot of work has already been done to position net zero as expensive. This means that when commentators falsely blamed rising energy prices on renewables instead of gas, it often worked.

  • It strengthens dissonance

People can believe climate change is happening but reject action because they doubt it benefits them. More Brits than you might think are vulnerable to this. A survey from November 2022 found that while most Brits are not ‘hard’ climate deniers (9%), 32% believe that humans are ‘partly’ responsible for climate change, instead of ‘mainly’ responsible for climate change.

Meanwhile YouGov polling shows dwindling support for spending more on climate change and the environment. Attacking ‘net zero’ instead of ‘climate policy’ or ‘climate action’ is deliberate, as it means that people supportive of climate action may turn against the same policies that represent it.

  • It reinforces denialism

Much CONZ content targets people, particularly men, over 45 years old. This is a large and influential group, particularly when it comes to political action, and they are not commonly targeted by the climate movement.

Additionally, YouGov polling shows a slow creep to higher climate denialism in the UK. Frames that position climate change as expensive or unnecessary will exacerbate denialism and scepticism.

  • It is creating culture wars

Many narratives use a culture war framing that pits groups against each other. For example, the ‘ruling elites’ or ‘out-of-touch environmentalists’ vs. ‘ordinary’ people. There are even frequent, if unheeded, calls for a referendum on net zero. This would result in the ultimate culture war over climate change in the UK.

Why is all this a problem?

If CONZ frames are successful, action on climate change will become the ‘enemy’ to those people that have yet to be persuaded on it either way. We call these people the Persuadables, and they make up roughly 70% of the UK population. They are crucial for keeping the UK on track for a world at or below 1.5C of global heating.

Three tactics to create effective communications

Our arguments must appeal to groups emotionally.Data and arguments alone won’t win hearts and minds.

We can do three things: inoculate the public against misinformation by reaching them with a positive message, reframe CONZ by communicating the benefits of climate policy, or rebut misinformation with the relevant facts.

  1. Inoculate

The most powerful thing we can do is put out our own positive messaging about climate action, independent of the CONZ message. This way, people are ‘inoculated’ against the misinformation before they see it and will think twice when they do.

Our advice is to raise awareness of what climate solutions really look like. Be benefit led instead of climate led. This means talking about breathable air; a less pressured health service; or cheap, British energy.

We strongly recommend paid media channels to reach Persuadable audiences. Read our paid media guide, and see a list of advertising case studies we have done in partnership with climate organisations.

Here’s a great example of leading with personal benefits from Method/TBWA.

  • Reframe

The next best thing we can do is to counter CONZ by reframing net zero. This is less effective than inoculation because net zero is already a vulnerable, poorly understood term.

‘Net zero’ sounds like a negative thing, while discussion of carbon emissions is too complicated and abstract for a punchy communications message. What we can do is reframe net zero as a net benefit, financially and for the environment.

  • Rebut

Sometimes a specific narrative is too big to ignore – like when rising energy prices following the invasion of Ukraine were falsely blamed on renewables and net zero.

In this case, we need to rebut using the Fact, Myth, Fallacy technique:

Kathryn Bonner is Account & Partnerships Manage at ACT Climate Labs. For more information visit:

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