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International Negotiations

COP28 calls for “transition away from fossil fuels”. Does the UK public agree?

14 December 2023

Where does UK public opinion sit on support for phasing out fossil fuels in the UK?

COP28, held in Dubai, ended with an agreement to begin “transitioning away from fossil fuels”. It is the first time a commitment like this, directly referencing fossil fuels, has been made in 30 years of UN climate conferences. The language nonetheless stopped short of calling for a complete ‘phase out’ of fossil fuels, which many countries (especially climate vulnerable nations) had supported. Where does UK public opinion sit on this: is there support for phasing out fossil fuels in the UK?

Renewables love-in

Like the delegates at COP28, the British public is all in favour of renewables. 

Climate Barometer tracker data finds solar topping the table as the most popular form of energy generation, with 80% in favour versus only 5% against. Long running polling by YouGov backs this up: wind power consistently wins out, with solar competing with nuclear for second place. There doesn’t appear to be much regional variation either – support for renewables is high across the country, in every constituency.

So just stop oil?

The relative unpopularity of oil and gas is not the same, however, as outright opposition to it. 

Citizens of fossil-fuel producing nations tend to show lower support for stopping or banning oil and gas than those in countries that aren’t major producers. In the UK, polling shows support for oil and gas extraction rising to 57% among older age groups. A survey by Ipsos, in the week following the government’s announcement that it planned to release 100 new oil and gas licences, found around 50% believed this would help to reduce Britain’s dependence on other countries for energy. 

Perhaps most striking is the gap between Labour and Conservative voters on ending drilling for gas in the North Sea (red and blue bars, respectively, in the chart below). 48% of Conservative voters oppose this, whilst only 11% of Labour supporters do. Among Conservative voters, a sizable amount (38%) are unsure, or are on the fence, with only 16% currently in support of ending drilling in the North Sea.

So while there is not a lot of love for fossil fuels among UK voters, this doesn’t equate to unconditional support for ‘phasing out’ oil and gas. 

At least, not yet.

How people think about energy security is changing 

For a long time, an argument made in favour of fossil fuels was that oil and gas could provide a secure, reliable source of energy. Increasingly, in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the instability that rippled through the global energy system, energy security is looming large for voters – but not in the way that fossil fuel advocates may have expected. 

 

When asked to choose between increasing renewables, or increasing our domestic oil and gas supply, people were more likely to choose renewables as the best way of ensuring the UK’s energy security. Conservative MPs are the outliers here, with 43% preferring to increase our domestic supply of oil and gas.

 

There is evidence that speaking to voters about green policies in the language of energy security, reliability and independence hits home. Recent polling found that of four different messages framing Labour’s Green Prosperity Plan, the message emphasising how the plan would increase energy independence was the best received. 

There are risks with going ‘all in’ on energy security as a framing for renewables, though: Domestic oil and gas production is often framed by its advocates with similar rhetoric. And the final text of the COP28 global stocktake invoked energy security to justify the need for ‘transition fuels’ (including gas). 

But while people may accept oil and gas has a role in the UK energy mix – for now – there are signs that patience with oil company inertia on climate change is running out. The UK public wants oil companies to pay more for the energy transition: a ‘loophole-free windfall tax’ is a highly popular policy, including among Conservative voters.  

A government that pushes harder on these issues – in the context of increasing energy security and independence – will likely find ‘open doors’ in terms of public support. And if renewables continue to be seen as the more secure option, then public support for phasing fossil fuels down may soon become support for phasing them out altogether.

Reference article:

  • Date: 13th December 2023

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