On 24th June 2019, the House of Commons approved the UK’s 2050 Net Zero target without a single objection. Six months later, every major political party committed to Net Zero in their general election manifestos. Less than two years later, Conservative, Labour, Liberal Democrat and SNP politicians competed to out-green each other at COP26 in Glasgow. The UK’s conversion from industrial revolutionary to environmental champion is ostensibly complete.
But proponents of the Net Zero target must not be complacent. There is a noisy campaign on the right of British politics, including from Nigel Farage, to overturn the Net Zero pledge. Heat pumps and electric vehicles are getting cheaper, but voters have not forgotten the costly diesel cars or combi boilers that previous governments told them to buy. The Treasury is concerned about the fiscal implications of Net Zero: taxes are already at their highest for several decades.
The argument that Net Zero is pushing up costs on households and that public support for environmentalism is soft is completely bogus. Previous Onward research has shown how renewables investment over the last decade has actually cut consumer bills. And this research shows that that Net Zero scepticism is completely out of touch with public opinion.
Our polling from 6th-7th April shows that three-fifths (64%) of voters support the UK’s plan to reach Net Zero by 2050. This is seven times the share (9%) who say they oppose the policy. And 58% of people agree that “The UK should keep its plan to reach Net Zero by 2050, even if it’s going to be expensive, as we need to stop damaging the environment”, more than double the level who think the UK should scrap the plan if it is too expensive.
They are also more optimistic about new job opportunities in renewables, and confident in the UK’s leading role in the science and technology needed to reach Net Zero, than more affluent Conservative voters (ABC1).
There is a clear distinction between general arguments around ‘going green’ and ‘tackling climate change’ – which find muted support – and patriotic arguments that instead focus on the UK’s strengths in certain sectors and the opportunity for new, good jobs.
Northern Tories are slightly more likely to support keeping the Net Zero target than Tory voters in the South (51% compared to 48%, respectively). And Northern Conservatives are also more likely to agree that “There is no good reason to get rid of the Net Zero target.”
Nearly half (46%) of voters say they would be less likely to vote for a party that pledged to get rid of the Net Zero target. Only 15% say it would make them more likely to vote for such a party.
And ditching Net Zero is unlikely to win back those 2019 Conservatives who say they no longer support the party. The graph below shows that, among this group, 51% say they would not vote for a party that got rid of the Net Zero target; only 18% said they would vote for such a party.
Support for Net Zero increases if the discussion focuses on the long term. Preserving the world that we leave behind for our grandchildren finds equally strong support from both Labour (79% agree) and Conservative (78% agree) voters. But, where phrases like “climate action” and “going green” galvanise younger graduates, they fail to gain much traction among other groups; opinion diverges by age, class, and education.
In a second poll, conducted on 6th-7th April, we found that a majority (55%) think the conflict means we should move faster rather than slower (28%) on Net Zero. The public overwhelmingly prefer investing in renewables (68%) as the best way of securing the UK’s energy supply.
By two-to-one, the public think that the conflict in Ukraine means we should move faster rather than slower on Net Zero. And 68% think that the UK should restrict the import of Russian gas even if it makes bills more expensive.
Support for decarbonisation is widespread, but not universal. For proponents of the Net Zero target, convincing the unconvinced is more important than preaching to the choir. The polling in this report implies four key lessons for how politicians and campaigners should talk about Net Zero in order to maintain the currently high levels of support:
This report is produced as part of our Getting to Zero research programme.
Established a year before COP26, Onward’s Getting to Zero programme is dedicated to developing practical and politically possible ways for the UK to meet its net zero ambitions and lead the world in decarbonisation.
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