Brexit, austerity, Scottish independence – if you’d been living on a remote island for the last year with access only to the Today programme, you could reasonably assume these issues would dominate the forthcoming general election. Increasingly, however, it seems this could be the first time in which climate change plays a defining role in how people vote.
Labour has put forward the most radical environmental programme in its history. The party’s “green industrial revolution” agenda aims to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2030. The Liberal Democrats have set a target of 2045 and have pledged to ensure 80 per cent of electricity is produced by renewable sources by 2030. The Conservatives, meanwhile, promise net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, and recently announced their own version of radical climate policy –a moratorium on fracking (the move was widely criticised after it became clear that it may merely be a pause, rather than a ban).
These plans could be as politically expedient as they are environmentally friendly. Voters are more troubled by climate change than ever before. Extinction Rebellion, the schools strike movement and predictions from IPCC scientists have focussed attention on the urgency of the crisis. According to a new poll by YouGov, more than half of the electorate think the government should aim to achieve net-zero emissions by 2030 – a target 20 years ahead of the Conservatives’ current promise of 2050.
The poll finds that 56 per cent of the UK public – and almost half of Conservative voters – would back the total decarbonisation of the UK’s economy by 2030. Among respondents, 32 per cent support a target of net-zero emissions by 2025; 24 per cent support a target of 2030, and only 8 per cent say the government should aim for 2050. Support for the more radical 2025 target was higher among Remain voters and young people; it was also heavily concentrated in London, compared to the North and Midlands.
These findings reflect two factors. First, that the electorate is increasingly aware of the scale of the climate crisis, and that highlighting the benefits of a carbon-free future, rather than the costs or taxes associated with specific policies, is likely to be more popular with voters (the poll made no mention of the costs associated with reaching net-zero by 2025, for example).
This has become something of a consensus among climate policy-makers. “People support the ambition. The problem is how you realise that ambition – that is always going to be the difficulty with climate change policy,” Bob Ward, policy director of the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change tells me. “Do [people] really know what would be involved in getting to net-zero by 2025? If you told them it means they couldn’t fly, or [their] central heating would have to be ripped out… I suspect you’d get much lower levels of support.”
Second, the distribution of support for the 2030 target mirrored the divide in attitudes towards immigration – between big, affluent cities like London, with Friday for Future marches, well-funded public transport systems and liberal politics, and areas where an old diesel vehicle can be a lifeline absent a functional bus service. “In order to get where we need to be, we’re going to need to take a large proportion of the population” – with a vision of climate policy that has broad appeal, Ward adds.
But in the case of specific climate policies, results from previous polling conducted by YouGov show majority support for a number of the more radical ideas associated with a Green New Deal. Here are some of the most popular:
1. Increasing government spending to make local bus transport free for everyone
Both Labour and the Green Party have pledged to make bus transport affordable, or free, as part of their Green New Deal proposals – a measure intended to slash emissions from private diesel and petrol cars and help low-income voters.
The idea is popular. Almost half of UK voters support “increased government spending to make local bus transport free for everyone”. Unlike in the case of the 2030 target, support for free bus travel is distributed more evenly across the country – suggesting that investment in infrastructure essential to peoples’ lives could help appeal to voters outside major cities.
2. Banning private jets
Andy McDonald, Labour’s shadow transport secretary, has said the party would consider a ban on non-electric private jets used by “multi-millionaires and billionaires who… are doing profound damage to the climate”. According to Common Wealth, a think tank with close links to the Labour, private jets represent 6 per cent of all UK air traffic; a private-jet flight from London to New York is equivalent to driving a UK car for four and a half years, non-stop.
It’s unsurprising that a greater proportion of voters are in favour of banning private jets (33 per cent), compared to the number who say they’d oppose such a ban (15 per cent): the overwhelming majority of people don’t own a private jet (Prince Harry aside). “Nowhere is carbon inequality more evident than private jet ownership,” Commonwealth’s researchers write. Indeed, as Ward notes, “the public are more likely to support policies they believe to be fair”.
3. Taking responsibility for the global effort on climate change (e.g. the biggest polluters working with the most affected to develop solutions)
The issue of climate reparations – where countries that have polluted the most pay the burden of climate emergencies – is a thorny one.
During a Labour conference debate about the Green New Deal, Steve Turner, the assistant general secretary of Unite, enthusiastically called for climate reparations to the global south. The Green Party mentioned reparations in its 2019 European election manifesto. Some, including Boris Johnson, believe that because the UK contributes less to global emissions than countries like China and India, it shouldn’t be paying more to confront the burden of emissions. Of course, this ignores the country’s historic role as a prime carbon emitter – and the effects of past industrialisation on the environment.
For now, at least, voters are in favour of the UK taking responsibility in the global effort on climate change, with 72 per cent of people strongly supporting or tending to support the ideal. But the question was phrased without mentioning the costs associated with policies like reparations – meaning it’s difficult to draw firm conclusions about what, exactly, respondents mean by “responsibility”.
4. Creating well-paid, skilled green jobs across the country
During the Great Depression of the 1930s, FD Roosevelt, faced with the ecological crisis of the dust bowl and a stagnant US economy, launched a number of jobs creation programmes to tackle unemployment and rebuild the public realm. Drawing inspiration from the US president’s New Deal, proposals for a Green New Deal hinge on a similarly extensive programme of jobs creation.
The proposal commands majority support, with 80 per cent of poll respondents in favour – and only 8 per cent opposed. Among lower-income voters, almost as many (77 per cent) were in favour. This appeals to common sense: who wouldn’t say yes to more well-paid, green, skilled jobs? As Ward notes, though, “it also has an associated question – are you happy to see the number of jobs in some [carbon-intensive] sectors severely reduced?”
5. More government investment in green infrastructure, such as public transport and building insulation
Labour has promised a £250bn programme to retrofit houses to make them more carbon efficient; at the 2017 general election, the Greens pledged a national programme of retrofitting and insulation. The Lib Dems, meanwhile, have promised to insulate all low-income homes by 2025.
Among voters, the policy enjoys a similar appeal to job creation; 82 per cent were in support of more investment. Once more, as with the green jobs proposal, climate policies are more popular when centred on a vision of change that stresses the benefits of a carbon-free future.