Taking The Temperature: Scrapping The Net Zero Target Would Cost Tories 1.3m Votes

Date
April 25, 2022
Organisation
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"At the last general election more than 30 million voters backed parties committed to net zero. Since then we have made good progress towards this goal while encouraging other countries to do the same. But the global energy crisis and Ukraine conflict has led some to question whether the public still wants the Government to press ahead with the promise that it made in 2019. It is clear from this research that they do. My party would pay a heavy political price if it rowed back on net zero and so it is clear that the only option is to deliver on our promise."

On 24th June 2019, the House of Commons approved the UK’s target of reaching Net Zero carbon emissions by 2050 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 Conservatives ditch Net Zero at their peril

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.

Net Zero is overwhelmingly popular

Three fifths (60%) of voters support the UK’s plan to reach Net Zero by 2050. This is six times the share (10%) who say they oppose the policy. And 55% 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 (25%) who think the UK should scrap the plan if it is too expensive.

Working class Tories are more supportive of investing in renewable energy

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).

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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.

There is no North-South divide among Conservatives

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.”

Ditching Net Zero is a vote-loser for the Conservatives

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.

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Messaging matters

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.

Voters’ support for Net Zero remains strong following the Ukraine crisis and rising fuel costs

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.

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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:

  1. People are motivated by personal impact. Voters, especially older generations, overwhelmingly care about the impact of environmental damage on the lives of their children and grandchildren.
  2. Populist arguments cut through; voters want politicians to stick to their promises and are sceptical of big energy companies making big profits.
  3. Voters respond to the UK’s role as a world leader in science and technology and the job opportunities that arise from growing sectors like renewable energy.
  4. While voters of all ages care about protecting the environment and investing in renewable energy, many older and working-class voters are put off by the language of “tackling climate change”.