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Two thirds plan to make more sustainable lifestyle choices over the next five years

Polling suggest consumers increasingly see the benefits of switching to “greener” behaviours or technologies.

By Polly Bindman

Politicians have taken to downplaying or refuting the economic benefits of environmental policies, due to an apparent perception that they are an electoral liability. Examples include Joe Biden branding the “largest investment in clean energy and climate action ever” as the ambiguously titled “Inflation Reduction Act”, to Rishi Sunak depicting net zero as a “burden” on “hard-pressed British families”. One casualty of this narrative was Labour’s green prosperity plan, which has now been stripped of its £28bn investment.

Yet new polling shared with New Statesman Spotlight suggests that voters are divided on this issue: roughly the same proportion of consumers polled by Opinium Research* see adopting more sustainable choices (such as switching to an electric car or a heat pump) as “too expensive”, as those who think it will make them “better off in the long run” (39 per cent vs 37 per cent, respectively).

A further 16 per cent of respondents told Opinium that they “don’t mind” paying extra for green technologies, while 15 per cent said that these choices will make them “financially better off”. 

Of those who responded to the question, a majority (62 per cent) of consumers across all age bands said that they expect to increase their sustainable choices over the next five years. Potential shifts flagged by respondents include behavioural changes, like walking or cycling wherever possible instead of driving, as well as consumer choices, like limiting meat consumption.

In a context where green policies are “increasingly rolled back”, the polling reveals a “remarkably resilient understanding of the benefits of going green”, Ian McKee, head of communications at UK energy services company Good Energy (which commissioned the research) told Spotlight.

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The fact that “consumers are resolved to buy more sustainably” sends a “clear message to investors that greener companies can expect continued better growth prospects”, added James Alexander, head of the UK Sustainable Investment and Finance Association.

A small share of respondents (7 per cent) said they hoped to install a heat pump in the next five years, while 6 per cent expressed a desire to install a solar thermal heating system. However, the main barrier for not adopting greener energy choices, cited by two thirds (62 per cent) of respondents, is the cost.

Older people seem more unwilling to spend money to increase their sustainability credentials. While an impressive 85 per cent of adults over the age of 55 say that they take the zero-cost option of recycling at home (compared with 46 per cent of 18- to 34-year-olds), 70 per cent of over-55s also cite “cost” as the reason preventing them from taking further green measures, compared with under half (46 per cent) of younger people.

Looking at the big picture, it is clear that green policies have economic benefits, with data revealing that “cutting the green crap” (neglecting sustainability interventions), has added billions to household bills. But for individuals, the reality is more complicated, and for many, supportive government policy is needed to help with the upfront costs of adopting cleaner at-home energy systems, such as heat pumps.

As noted in the Financial Times, under the government’s “generous” feed-in tariff (FiT) subsidy programme, in which households received payments for electricity generated through renewable energy systems, power generated from solar in the UK leaped from 0.04 terawatt hours (TWh) to 12.42 TWh between 2010 and 2019. The scheme closed in 2019.

“We know that people want to do the right thing and make better purchases for the environment, but sometimes it can feel like the system is stacked against them and they have to pay a premium for going green,” said Libby Peake, head of resource policy at the Green Alliance, responding to the polling. 

As Megan Kenyon wrote recently in Spotlight, while Labour’s £28bn is gone, “it’s clear that the main aims of the green prosperity plan must stay”. This sentiment is echoed by Ed Matthew, campaigns director at the think tank E3G. While Labour dropping the £28bn pledge “is disappointing”, the party can still “reassure the investment and industrial communities that their mission to make the UK a clean energy superpower has not faltered”, he said. The best way to do this would be for Labour to develop a net zero investment plan in line with the UK’s climate targets, with “long-term, detailed sectoral investment commitments” included, he added.

*Weighted nationally representative sample of 2,000 UK adults.

[See also: The government must stand firm on heat pumps]

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