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Net Zero

Comment: Reform voters and net zero

18 April 2024

Without winning a single seat, Reform UK could seriously disrupt the dominant discourse on net zero.

Reform UK is polling at its highest level yet

Running on an anti-net zero ticket, the party isn’t currently predicted to win any seats at the next General Election. But Reform doesn’t need to win any seats to lose the Conservatives plenty of them

Even without representation at Westminster, Reform could shape the conversation on net zero if the mainstream parties pivot in response to Reform’s rhetoric, deepening the risk of climate change being used as a ‘wedge issue’. 

Two years ago, the party’s Chairman, Nigel Farage, called for a referendum on net zero (albeit to a very muted response). This week, party leader Richard Tice said Reform would scrap the UK’s Net Zero targets and use the money to improve the NHS instead. As well as pitting the NHS directly against net zero, Tice doubled down on the call for a referendum on net zero, claiming they would win it “hands down”.   

As campaigners and journalists have been quick to point out, there’s consistently high levels of support for net zero across the mainstream political spectrum. So on the face of it, Tice’s prediction of an easily won referendum is unlikely to come to pass . 

But while support for net zero is holding up among Conservative as well as Labour voters, are Reform voters different?

The short answer is ‘yes’ – at least on the limited evidence available so far

Reform voters and net zero

As a new party that has only recently achieved polling numbers to justify closer attention to their voters, relatively little is known about Reform voters’ climate opinions. 

Approximately 200 Reform voters (those intending to vote Reform at the next general election) have taken part in Climate Barometer surveys to date, so comparisons should be understood in this context, but some stark differences are apparent.

In contrast to supporters of all other parties, Reform voters express clear opposition to net zero policies. 70% say they oppose the target of net zero emissions by 2050, with 52% strongly opposing it. And 72% believe that people who campaign on climate change are ‘out of touch with most of the country’.

A clear majority (75%) of Reform voters also hold the belief that it will ‘cost too much to tackle climate change now and we should be prioritising other things’, and many (79%) believe that the UK should not be taking steps to tackle climate ‘until other bigger countries, like the US and China agree to do the same’. 

Levels of support among Reform voters for building more wind and solar capacity are net positive, but still well below the levels seen across the rest of the population. 

Some of the views of Reform voters seem to reflect an exposure (and susceptibility) to conspiratorial anti-net zero narratives: they are more than twice as likely as Conservative voters to believe that 15 minute neighbourhoods are an ‘attempt to restrict where people can drive, and control where people can go’.

Who are Reform voters?

Reform voters are likely to have previously voted Conservative, and on some climate issues, Reform and Conservative voters speak with one voice: one recent survey found similar levels of support for expanding the oil and gas industry in the North Sea (much higher than for supporters of other parties).

But for the most part Conservative voters are closer to the other mainstream parties than to Reform in terms of their views on net zero.

Reform voters are more likely to have opted for ‘Leave’ in the EU referendum, to be older, and not to be university educated. This description would also apply to the ‘Loyal Nationals’ segment of the population, and indeed, More in Common data shows that Loyal Nationals are the segment polling highest for Reform at the next general election.

But Reform voters can’t be straightforwardly equated with Loyal Nationals. 

More in Common data shows that they are far from the only segment considering switching to Reform. And although Loyal Nationals share some views with Reform voters on immigration, as well as concerns about costs and fairness when it comes to some net zero policies, they consistently report the third highest levels of concern about climate change.

In contrast, unpublished polling shared with Climate Barometer by the pollster Steven Akehurst showed a whopping 65% of Reform voters (299 in a sample of 4000 respondents) indicating that they were either ‘not very’, or ‘not at all’ worried about climate change.

Reform voters aren’t easy to pigeon hole. When a party plays to disenfranchisement with the mainstream, voters’ grievances can come from across the political spectrum. 

The cost of net zero: will Reform’s arguments cut through? 

Richard Tice hasn’t denied that there’s a broad social consensus on net zero, but argued this week that the public is only supportive because people haven’t been ‘told the true cost’ of net zero.

There is no evidence to suggest that people want to abandon net zero when the potential costs are emphasised, but there is a clear drop-off in support. And concerns about the costs of the transition being unfairly distributed are highest among Loyal Nationals, who, despite their varied voting intentions, are exactly the sort of voters Reform is trying to attract. Loyal Nationals are the segment most likely to agree that a ban on petrol and diesel cars is unfair because it would add extra cost to daily life (70%, compared to 46% average).

There’s widespread agreement across the population that the impacts of climate change will be costly and damaging, and that it would cost too much not to tackle climate change now’. But that doesn’t mean the public aren’t also worried about the costs green policies may bring. The UK government’s public attitude tracker shows that 69% of people currently believe that the net zero transition will increase their living expenses, while wider polling shows a majority think the transition will be expensive for the country as a whole.

At a minimum, there are genuine concerns about the costs of living that politicians from any party can use to build fear about how net zero policies will impact ordinary voters. 

Disrupting the discourse

Reform UK claims that the drive for net zero will cost £30 billion each year. Government figures, and analyses by the Climate Change Committee, do not back this up – and the costs of not taking rapid action to decarbonise far outweigh the costs of investing in reaching net zero.  

But that doesn’t mean that the arguments around cost should be dismissed, and they speak – in a way very obviously reminiscent of the Brexit debate – to the emotive power of pitting expenditure of any kind against funding for the NHS.  

The Reform rhetoric exploits a tension that many in the climate movement will recognise: although the path to net zero can and should be fair, current policies don’t do enough to guarantee this. During a prolonged cost of living crisis, there is a real risk of being viewed as on the ‘wrong side of the argument’ in terms of the costs to consumers of the transition to net zero. 

Although many Reform voters currently say they ‘don’t want to carry out more climate action’, or that ‘net zero could never be fair’, campaigns may yet gain traction if they can advocate fairer terms for householders (e.g. free heat pumps for people on low incomes), and build trust in the ‘offer’ from central government.

And with 30% of Reform supporters agreeing that energy companies should pay the ‘majority of the costs for reaching net zero’, laying the bill for the transition firmly at the door of big energy companies is a campaign tactic that even voters across the political spectrum would likely be on board with.

The latest from the Net Zero timeline:

Policy Insight 30th April 2024

Scotland drops 2030 emissions target but retains 2045 net zero ambition

Following sharp criticism from the Climate Change Committee (which said the Scottish government was failing to deliver on its net zero goals and had no credible delivery strategy), a target to reduce the country’s emissions by 75% by 2030 was dropped.

The Scottish Net Zero Cabinet Secretary Màiri McAllan said she “accepted” the target was no longer achievable.

The Scottish National Party (SNP) seemed reluctant to concede the target they had set was now impossible to achieve. This stands in contrast to the rhetoric deployed by Rishi Sunak in September 2023 when he announced delays to some UK-level net zero goals, positioning them as a ‘burden’ that the government would protect voters from.

The fallout from the SNP’s announcement was immediate and significant.

The SNP’s power-sharing coalition with the Scottish Green Party was dissolved days later, with disagreement over the decision to scrap the 2030 target cited as one of the reasons for the breakdown of the agreement.  Humza Yousaf subsequently resigned as First Minister.

Some commentary suggested that the disagreement over the climate targets reflected the divisiveness of net zero in Scotland, but a poll conducted whilst all of this was unfolding underscored the support among Scottish voters for the country’s net zero ambition.

  • Source: Net Zero Scotland
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
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