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  • Widespread ‘net zero’ scepticism among UK public

    1024 682 Stuart O'Brien

    The majority of the UK public are sceptical about achieving the net zero target, with 58% believing that it is unlikely that the target will be achieved even by 2050.

    Bright Blue, the independent think tank for liberal conservatism, has published analysis of UK public attitudes to the target of net zero carbon emissions by 2050, entitled Going greener? Public attitudes to net zero.

    The report explores attitudes to the credibility of, responsibility for, and policies to achieve net zero, with key finding including:-

    • National governments are seen to have the highest responsibility for achieving the target. 82% of the public assign them a high degree of responsibility. Strong majorities also think businesses (82%), local governments (78%), and members of the public (74%) have a high degree of responsibility.
    • Public awareness of how various activities contribute to greenhouse gas emissions is generally strong. Although the extent of these perceptions varies between activities, from 77% of the public seeing flying on aeroplanes as a significant contributor to climate to 56% for production of food on farms.
    • A majority of the public think that people will need to undertake a number of changes in their behaviour to help achieve net zero.This includes recycling more (63%), installing better home insulation (53%), reducing air travel (52%) and buying and driving an electric car (52%). Eating less meat was the lowest supported change of behaviour (34%). Only 10% of people thought most people would not have to make any changes.
    • Much of the public are already making changes to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. A majority of the public (72%) already reuses and recycles more products, while a plurality is buying more locally produced goods (43%), has installed home insulation (43%), used more cycling or public transport (35%) and eaten less meat (35%).
    • The public has a significant expectation of price increases to achieve net zero. They expect prices will go up greatly or slightly on all types of products and services that we have polled if we take action to achieve net zero. Airplane tickets see the greatest expectation in higher prices, with 67% believing they will increase. The public is split on whether they actually would be willing to pay more for these products and services where higher prices would lead to lower emissions. People are most likely to be willing to pay more for products where they also have the lowest expectation of higher prices, such as electronic goods (46% willing to pay more), food (46%) and clothing (45%). In contrast, household electricity and home heating, both of which are most likely to be believed to face price increases as a result of net zero, are also products where a majority of people (52% and 51% respectively) say they would not be willing to pay more for them to lower emissions.
    • The public prefers a ‘carrot’ over ‘stick’ approach to achieving net zero. The public prefers policy approaches which use financial incentives to encourage environmentally friendly practices for individuals (49%) and businesses (45%) over laws and regulations that discourage or punish choices by individuals (34%) and businesses (38%).
    • There are high levels of support for a range of government policies for achieving net zero. This includes requiring firms that work for government to assess and report on their carbon footprint (66%), providing tax breaks for businesses which have cut emissions (59%), introducing a carbon tax (52%), taxing investment in fossil fuels (51%), establishing a new emissions trading scheme for businesses (50%) and installing smart meters in all homes and businesses (49%).
    • There is public support for government subsidies to help with decarbonisation. A majority of the public support government subsidies for installing better home insulation (69%), using an electric car (64%), switching away from natural gas heating in homes (62%) and using cycling or public transport as main methods of travel (53%). But the public opposes government subsidies for reducing air travel, with 35% supportive and 43% opposed, and eating less meat, with 27% supportive and 52% opposed.
    • There is strong support for subsidies for low-income households and small businesses. There is also broad public support for subsidies to help with at least some costs of decarbonisation changes, such as insulation, for low-income households (81%) and small businesses (80%). 27% of the public thinks that low-income households should receive help with all of the costs, and 29% think so about most of the costs, indicating that most of the public would support significant government action. In contrast, only 15% think that small businesses should receive help with all of the costs, indicating that the public wishes to aid them in a more limited manner.
    • The public believes that many businesses aren’t taking enough action to reduce emissions. The public is most critical of airlines, with 50% believing they are not taking enough action. More people are critical than not of: industrial manufacturers, gas companies, car makers, high street shops, electricity companies, container shipping firms, housebuilders, and supermarkets. The farming industry is the only industry that more people believe are doing enough than not enough, with 33% believing they are and 27% believing they are not.
    • There is a high level of support for specific actions by businesses to help achieve net zero greenhouse gas emissions as long as they do not impact prices. A majority supports businesses investing profits into sustainable technologies and practices (68%), offsetting greenhouse gas emissions (63%), creating internal targets for achieving net zero greenhouse gas emissions (62%), publishing detailed breakdowns of emissions from business activities (62%) and making consideration of emissions a key factor in decision-making (62%). However, support for increasing charges to customers to cut emissions is low (29%).
    • Public familiarity with low-carbon heating technologies remains relatively low. Only 42% of the British public have heard of heat pumps, which is the system with the highest familiarity, in comparison to 46% who have not heard of them. People are even less familiar with hybrid boilers (27%), hydrogen boilers (21%) and heat networks (18%). As such, there is relatively low interest in replacing the existing heating method with a low-carbon heating system such as hybrid boilers (44%), heat pumps (44%), hydrogen boilers (35%) and heat networks (32%). A large number of the public did not provide a response, likely due to the low familiarity.
    • The public prioritises functionality, cost, and ease of use over a low carbon footprint for home heating systems. A majority of the public think that having a residential heating system with a low carbon footprint is important (67%). However, control functions such as being able to use it at any point (86%), heating up quickly (84%) and ownership (75%), are seen as more important as well as being lower cost than alternatives (78%) and being familiar (77%). While reduction in greenhouse gas emissions is a motivating factor for installing a new home heating system for the majority of the public (68%), other factors including running costs (83%), having reliable information (82%), cost of replacement (80%), ease of procuring and installation (77%), and ownership (71%) are more popular reasons.
    • There is a high degree of familiarity among most of the public regarding home energy efficiency measures. Double glazing (88%), loft insulation (87%), wall insulation (85%), energy-efficient lighting (84%) draught-proofing windows (79%) and under floor insulation (77%) are all being widely recognised. Levels of installation of different energy efficiency measures closely follow knowledge of them, with double glazing (51%), loft insulation (46%), wall insulation (39%), energy-efficient lighting (34%) and draught-proofing windows (30%) already being installed by a notable proportion of the UK public.
    • The public sees a range of benefits and drawbacks from adopting these energy efficiency measures. These include making energy bills cheaper (69%), reducing greenhouse gas emissions (52%) and making the house more comfortable to live in (49%) being seen as the most important benefit, while high initial costs (62%), disruption during installation (36%) and future costs in maintaining the measures (31%) seen as the key drawbacks.

    Anvar Sarygulov, Senior Researcher at Bright Blue and report author, said: “The changes that need to be made by individuals, businesses and government to help achieve net zero are demanding and disruptive. The public recognises that the government, businesses and individuals themselves have a lot to contribute to help Britain achieve its climate change goals, and are receptive to a variety of policies and behavioural changes to help make it happen. However, if it means increased prices on home electricity and heating, the public are opposed to action.

    “Ambitious, sometimes radical, action will be needed across economic sectors. The public will need to accept, and adapt to, significant changes in the goods and services they consume. Many are still unaware of and unprepared for the changes required, especially in the way they heat their homes, to ensure we can reach net zero by 2050. Government and businesses must do more to inform and prepare the public for the changes that need to happen, or they risk the public turning against necessary decarbonisation.”

    The full data tables for the polling can be found here.


    Stuart O'Brien

    All stories by: Stuart O'Brien