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Net Zero

Comment: Bumps on the road to net zero in 2023

14 November 2023

There were bumps on the road to net zero in 2023. But did the delays and diversions reflect growing public doubts or political dividing lines?

The environment has fairly consistently been a top-five issue for voters in Britain for a number of years. But while this is good news, there’s sometimes a tendency to overestimate how much bandwidth voters allocate to the pursuit of net zero. To the extent that people understand the term (for many it remains poorly defined), there is a continuing consensus around the goal of reaching net zero by 2050. The latest Climate Barometer tracker data (below) shows no sign of a fracturing of this consensus.

But if the climate movement can sometimes read too much into these easy statements of agreement (with a poorly defined concept in almost 30 years’ time) then the political establishment almost certainly read too much into the by-election in Uxbridge, in July 2023. 

Held very narrowly by the Conservatives, against expectations, the vote (probably) reflected opposition to the expansion of London’s Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ). But this tentative conclusion was quickly extrapolated by Conservative commentators and politicians as a sign there were votes to be won by opposing green policies more generally.   

Fast forward to September 2023 and the Prime Minister was making a rare live televised address announcing a series of changes and delays to net zero policies (originally implemented by the Conservatives themselves), positioning them as undue burdens on families already stretched by a prolonged cost-of-living crisis.

A turn against net zero? 

A flurry of polling since Rishi Sunak revised his political positioning on net zero has revealed a number of social and political divides (or, more accurately, has shone a light on existing differences). 

Snap YouGov polling on the day of Sunak’s speech showed some clear differences between Conservative and Labour voters. While 61% of Labour voters felt that the government should keep all current climate change plans in pursuit of net zero by 2050, only 19% of Conservative voters felt this way. 

Polling for The Times told a similar story, but also pointed to a sharp difference in the interpretation of the intent behind the announcements: Labour voters were more likely to infer the announcement was made to create political dividing lines with Labour, while Conservative voters interpreted the changes as a sign the previous targets weren’t practically achievable. 

The same survey found voters of all parties (60%) currently believing that Britain cannot get to net zero without imposing costs on ordinary people. In the face of continuing high costs of living, concerns about how the costs of net zero policies will be spread will remain important. Notably, the most popular measure in Sunak’s speech was to increase grants to install heat pumps.

But although these findings are important, arguably they don’t show much in the way of a dramatic shift. We’ve known for some time that when climate policies are presented as incurring personal costs or inconvenience, support drops off. Ahead of COP26, research from Ipsos MORI and the Centre for Climate Change and Social Transformations (CAST) found that support for installing heat pumps, low traffic neighbourhoods (LTNs) and meat-free diets fell from a comfortable majority to under 40% when lifestyle or cost implications were emphasised. This research was carried out before the costs of living hit millions of households. So it’s no surprise that there are deep-seated fears around anything that might hurt people financially – something which Sunak’s speech explicitly played into.

And although the UK has not been blighted by the same visceral polarisation on climate change as the US or Australia, lower levels of support for some net zero policies among Conservative voters have been evident for some time. Although there are plenty of popular policies among Conservative voters (this Onward ‘league table’ shows the most favoured approaches), there are also some that currently don’t enjoy majority support (the phasing out of gas boilers and petrol/diesel cars among them).

Recognising this, Sunak wagered that watering down some net zero commitments would bring in more voters. But did the gamble pay off? 

Net zero political capital?

Taking a snapshot of the seven-day period following Sunak’s net zero speech, there’s very limited evidence of a gain in political capital. A large continuing gap between the Conservatives and Labour in terms of voting intention at the next General Election remained, and there was a drop in Rishi Sunak’s personal approval ratings based on Politico’s poll of polls. One survey found the most common word used to describe the government pushing back or scrapping key climate policies was ‘untrustworthy’ (40%) – followed by ‘sensible’ (29%) and ‘chaotic’ (25%), and respondents said they’d describe Rishi Sunak as ‘reckless’ (33%), ‘backwards’ (31%), and ‘sensible’ (29%) if he were to push back these policies.

Despite the pointed attempt to link green policies and financial struggles in Sunak’s speech, in-depth research with 2019 Conservative voters by Public First for the think tank Onward found people do not blame net zero policies for the high cost of living. Voters placed it last among 11 reasons, behind the war in Ukraine, Brexit and Covid 19.  

The latest Climate Barometer tracker data supports this story (see below), with voters of every persuasion more likely to think the delays made the Conservative Party seem out of touch with the public than in tune with it. 

Not enough votes in ‘not zero’ 

There are real questions and concerns around how the costs of net zero policies will be distributed among the public. And there is some support – especially among Conservative voters – for delaying some aspects of the green transition. But the idea that the consensus around net zero has suddenly frayed doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. If the consensus on climate appears to be ‘paper thin’, that’s because we’re only now starting to stress-test it, and for many voters Sunak’s televised speech would have been the first time they were confronted with the specifics of net zero policies. And even then, polling from Ipsos found that less than half of those surveyed had heard ‘at least a fair amount’ about the changes Sunak announced.

Opposition and hesitation on specific net zero policies are driven by concerns about the speed and cost of the policies (as they currently stand), not the measures themselves – coupled with a deep lack of trust in the current government’s ability to deliver on its own commitments. Strikingly, there’s evidence that even among voters who support delays to net zero targets, it’s because they don’t believe they can be practically achieved, not because they oppose the policies themselves.

Support for net zero is not something that should be taken for granted. But the twists and turns on the path to net zero in 2023 suggest there’s also little to be gained in the short term politically, and so much to be lost in the long term (for everyone), in making net zero a political ‘wedge’ issue. 

The latest from the Net Zero timeline:

Opinion Insight 14th March 2024

Grantham Institute survey: What benefits do people think climate policies will bring?

Policies to cut carbon can bring a range of ‘co-benefits’. From cleaner air, to warmer homes, to the prospect of green jobs, these co-benefits have often been advocated as a way to build support for net zero among people who may be more interested in these side-effects of climate policies than net zero itself.

In a new survey led by Neil Jennings at the Grantham Institute (Imperial College London), just over 1000 people were asked to assess nine different potential co-benefits of action on climate change.

The top response was ‘homes that are more affordable to heat’. This was chosen as the most important benefit for individuals, for communities, and for the country as a whole. It was also supported by voters of all parties. In the context of the eyewatering cost of energy over the past two years, cheaper heating bills were a universally popular co-benefit of action on climate change.

Another popular response was ‘improved energy security’. This makes a lot of sense, given that the rise in energy prices over the past two years was driven by a spike in the price of imported gas in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. And there’s growing evidence that renewables as a route to a more secure, homegrown energy system is a popular proposition across the political spectrum.

Interestingly, there was much less support for the idea that climate policies could be drivers of job creation. The prospect of green jobs has routinely been used by campaigners and politicians alike to build support for net zero. But this survey – backed by wider research – suggests that claims about green jobs may not land as well as is assumed.

But the survey makes it clear there’s work to do to persuade the public that even the most popular co-benefits are feasible in practice, with fewer people agreeing they’re practically achievable than identifying them as desirable in the first place.

The problem here isn’t a lack of positivity towards job creation, its the level of trust in the government to deliver them. Whether its warmer homes, energy security, or new green jobs, practical and tangible examples of climate policies actually delivering the benefits people want to see play a crucial role.

Climate policies really can deliver a whole host of positives. But when it comes to persuading the public of net zero co-benefits, seeing is believing.

  • Source: Imperial College London
  • Authors: Dr Neil Jennings, Dr Pauline Paterson, Prof Lorraine Whitmarsh, Dr Candice Howarth
  • Date: 6th March 2024
Policy Insight 7th March 2024

Spring Budget 2024: A small number of ‘green-tinged’ measures

The Spring 2024 budget was extremely light on green spending announcements – making it one of the least green budgets” of recent years according to reporting in The Guardian.

Given that the net zero economy is booming across the country – and that both voters and MPs see clean energy as the sector most likely to generate further growth – the absence of additional green investment is perhaps the most striking climate takeaway.

There were a smattering of ‘green tinged’ announcements (rounded up by Carbon Brief) which included:

  • A rise in Air Passenger Duty levied on Business Class flights and above, which have higher per-passenger carbon emissions. This policy reflects the broad agreement among voters that those who emit the most through their flights should pay more. However, ‘new taxes on flying’ were one of the (not yet implemented) policies that Rishi Sunak ‘scrapped’ in his net zero speech in September 2023.
  • An extension of the current ‘windfall tax’ being levied on oil and gas company profits will be extended until 2029. This is a straightforwardly popular policy: polling by Greenpeace in 2023 found that almost nine in ten people (87%) want to see a loophole-free windfall tax on the profits of oil and gas companies. And Climate Barometer tracker data shows that energy companies are seen as one of main culprits for the current high price of energy (alongside the war in Ukraine, and the government themselves).

The budget did not include any measures to reduce the cost of charging electric vehicles (EVs) – something that the former Top Gear journalist Quentin Wilson’s FairCharge campaign had been calling for. In fact, by extending the freeze on duty charged on petrol and diesel fuels, the budget prioritised petrol and diesel motoring over EVs.

  • Date: 6th March 2024
Opinion Insight 18th January 2024

Survey: Knowing someone with a heat pump increases support

In a survey of 2000 people, researchers at Cardiff and Bath universities explored public support for low carbon heating technologies (including heat pumps), and the factors that influence this support.

The survey found the majority of the respondents had at least a small amount of knowledge about low carbon heating options, and when provided with further information, held favourable views. Heat pumps (likely due to their prominence in policy discussions) were identified as the low carbon heating technology with the highest level of support.

Concerns about energy security, and pro-environmental attitudes were two factors which led to higher support for heat pumps. But the research also uncovered another important driver: knowing someone who has already had one installed.

Dubbed the ‘social circle effect’, people’s willingness to adopt low carbon heating options increased if they knew even one person who already had a heat pump.

View Net Zero timeline now

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