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Most People Back Net Zero – But Not When It Impacts Their Finances

(Alamy)

5 min read

Polling has shown that most people across the UK want government action and are enthusiastic about net zero policies, but that support starts to waver when people feel like it might cost them money.

The Prime Minister is expected to announce plans to relax a number of climate change policies on Wednesday afternoon, including delaying the ban on the sales of new petrol and diesel cars from 2030, after plans were leaked to the BBC

But data from polling conducted by Opinium last month show that a majority of voters across the political spectrum (56 per cent) believe that climate change is a “real issue” that is “as bad as often described”.

The polling also showed that more than half of the public think that the government is under-reacting (51 per cent) on climate change, compared to those who think it is over-reacting at 17 per cent.

Among Conservative voters, this shifts to 28 per cent who think ministers are under-reacting, while 43 per cent think that they are “getting the balance right”. 

However, almost half of people (46 per cent) say that they would oppose climate change policies if they have a negative impact on personal finances, compared to 22 per cent who would support. 

According to James Crouch, Opinium's head of policy and public affairs, this is the challenge that Sunak is “trying to grapple with”.

“I guess what he's trying to achieve here is that policies that incur a direct financial cost are a hard sell in a cost of living crisis,” Crouch explained.  

“We've seen a real big hit over the past year or so. People are much less comfortable with policies that are going to have direct financial costs during this kind of period.”

But he said that people do not tend to see the “wider green agenda” as a “net cost”, and support policies such as investment in renewables, increasing green infrastructure and more jobs being provided in those sectors as a “net positive for the economy”. 

Support for the development of green industry is particularly strong in ex-industrial areas, according to Scarlett Maguire, director at pollsters JL Partners. 

She told PoliticsHome voters want to see “top-down” direction on the issue, and had picked up a sentiment of “bring these things back here and do things that will make us achieve net zero” in places where industry has faltered.

Maguire agreed generally that support for net zero could come up against the cost of living crisis, but warned against caricaturing so-called “Red Wall” voters who may have backed the Conservatives for the first time in recent years. 

The government's change in tone on net zero has sparked a major row within the Tory party, with a number of moderate MPs arguing it will alienate a significant number of voters, as well as hinder investment. 

Others have praised Sunak's “pragmatic decision” to push back the ban on petrol and diesel engines. Earlier today, the co-chairs of a group of Tory MPs elected since the Brexit referendum called on the Prime Minister's critics to “recognise the impact” that the policy would have on “new Conservative voters”. 

In a letter to Sunak, MPs Miriam Cates and Danny Kruger said “it is true that, for the better off, electric vehicles are rapidly becoming a viable and attractive purchase. Many of those who backed our party in 2019 are not in that situation, however”.  

They added: “As a party that represents people from Kingswood to Keighley, we must make sure that the policy decisions we take leave the working people of this country better and not worse off.” 

Chris Hopkins, the political research director at Savanta agreed with the idea that the public generally support net zero, but said that the picture is “mixed” and the immediate financial cost of a policy change can alter levels of support. 

“I think that there is a massive dichotomy between support for the net zero in principle and support for net zero in practice,” he explained. 

“That gives pollsters a bit of a headache and it can give campaign groups polling that supports their argument, no matter which side of the argument.” 

Pointing to the government's legally enshrined goal of reaching net zero by 2050, Hopkins explained that it is “very easy to be supportive of something that you can't really envisage happening soon”. 

"Ultimately, the public are supportive of net zero. In general, they believe the government should be doing something about the environment and about greenhouse gas emissions in general, if it's going to cost them in their pockets immediately. I think that's when support starts to wane," he added. 

“That's basically the same across any policy platform, whether it's net zero or not” 

Net zero policy has been a hot topic in the Conservative Party since the Uxbridge by-election in July, when Tory Steve Tuckwell’s slim 500 vote victory was attributed to local opposition to Labour London mayor Sadiq Khan's decision to expand the Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ). 

Sam Hall, the director of the Conservative Environment Network, a group that includes MPs and peers, told PoliticsHome that he does not think there are equivalent environmental dividing lines in seats across the country and that “more generally” he believes “the public wants to see action on climate change”. 

“They want the politicians to find fair and affordable ways to achieve those targets, rather than dialling down climate ambition,” he said.

“I think the  public's perception of the Conservative Party would be damaged if it was seen to be weakening its overall climate commitments.”

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