10 December 2022

Is the Climate Culture War being overstated: Government survey reveals public support for lifestyle changes to achieve net zero

Is the Climate Culture War being overstated: Government survey reveals public support for lifestyle changes to achieve net zero

Survey of almost 7,000 UK adults reveals widespread backing for 2050 net zero goal – and sizeable support for many of the lifestyle choices that may be required to deliver it

If the government harbours concerns over whether it can rely on strong public support for the ambitious Net Zero Strategy it has promised to deliver ahead of the COP26 Summit this autumn then it need not look too far for compelling evidence.

Indeed, a survey of almost 7,000 adults released today by the government itself underscores how there is consistent, widespread public backing for the UK’s 2050 net zero emissions target, as well as sizeable support for greener lifestyle changes over the coming years in order to help meet the goal.

The research, which was carried out by staff from Defra and BEIS alongside academics from Cardiff and Bath Universities, focused on public awareness and perceptions of climate change and the net zero transition, and saw a representative sample of the UK public quizzed on a range of questions last autumn.

It found 83 per cent of participants felt climate change was a concern, while just over half perceived their local area to be experiencing the effects of climate change to ‘at least some extent’, on top of 14 per cent who believed global warming was impacting their area ‘a great deal’. Moreover, 86 per cent believed other countries were being effected to ‘at least some extent’ by climate change, and 42 per cent thought they were being impacted ‘a great deal’. As such the findings point to growing public awareness of the effects of climate change both in the UK and abroad, and how rising temperatures are impacting their daily lives.

Participants were also asked about their views and understanding of the UK’s legally-binding target to reach net zero emissions across the economy by 2050. Around two in every five respondents said they had ‘a lot’ or ‘a fair amount’ of knowledge of net zero, while 87 per cent stated that they had heard of the phrase.

And after researchers provided survey participants with information on net zero, a sizeable majority – 78 per cent – said they strongly or somewhat supported the target. Survey respondents also perceived many co-benefits when imagining a net zero future, with 76 per cent pointing to better health, 74 per cent highlighting higher levels of well-being, and 50 per cent believing the economy would be in better shape as a result of the transition.

The findings echo those of regular quarterly surveys carried out by the Department for Business Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) which have consistently demonstrated similarly high levels of concern about climate change, as well as overwhelming support for renewable energy. More recent BEIS surveys have also highlighted rapidly growing awareness and understanding of the concept of net zero over the past two years since the UK’s 2050 target was adopted.

In terms of current perceptions of emissions, transport was correctly seen by the most participants in the survey as a big carbon emitter, closely followed by industrial manufacturing. However, far fewer participants recognised agriculture, electricity usage, and heating of buildings as major emitters.

Elsewhere, today’s survey findings also reveal some details of participants views on changes to their lives that could be expected in the years ahead as the net zero transition accelerates, with mixed perceptions as to what the future might look like.

The change perceived most likely to occur in the coming decades was greater energy efficiency, such as through home insulation and other low carbon housing retrofit measures, with two-thirds believing these changes were either ‘extremely’ or ‘somewhat’ likely.

At the other end of the scale, however, consumption of meat and dairy was perceived by participants as the least likely change to occur over the next 30 years, with less than a third stating this was ‘extremely’ or ‘somewhat’ likely, despite a widespread view among scientists that curbing consumption of carbon intensive foods is likely to be required to meet net zero targets.

The survey also quizzed participants on potential societal changes to food waste, energy usage, heating, travel, cooking hobs, aviation, and buying habits.

Yet crucially, when asked their opinion as to whether the UK should focus on lifestyle changes or technological fixes to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, exactly half said the government should pursue an equal mix of the two to hit climate goals.

Another six per cent said primarily lifestyle changes should be used to drive decarbonisation and 10 per cent said slightly more onus should be put on lifestyle changes, while 12 per cent said primarily technological approaches should be used and 16 per cent they would lean slightly in favour of technological approaches.

Given the significant support in the survey for the net zero goal and lifestyle changes to deliver it, the findings will heighten frustration among businesses, campaign groups, and the government’s own climate advisors at the slow pace of policy action to drive the net zero transition.

Just yesterday the Climate Change Committee (CCC) unleashed its damning verdict on the government’s progress since the net zero target was set into statute two years ago. It warned that repeated failures to fill the yawning gap in policies and strategies to deliver the goal risked undermining chances of success at the crucial COP26 Summit later this year, and that the window of opportunity to secure a leading position for the UK in the future global green economy is fast closing.

Crucially, too, the CCC slammed the government’s failure to engage more closely and directly with the public on climate change and the net zero transition, warning that issues surrounding lifestyle choices would urgently need addressing if climate targets are to be met. In particular, it highlighted the need to reduce meat consumption in the UK in order to free up livestock grazing land for forestation, rewilding and crop growing.

Chris Stark, the CCC’s CEO, also highlighted the effectiveness of the pioneering Climate Assembly UK exercised led by Parliament last year, which saw over 100 UK adults participating in climate policy discussions to come up with a set of recommendations that were presented to government in the autumn. He argued that if the net zero transition is well planned, and the public is consulted and given a clear direction of travel on a host of crucial issues, the changes to peoples’ lives “will not be extreme – they’ll be very predictable”.

“And that’s the frustration actually – that we’re not seeing that net zero strategy spelling that kind of change out and removing some of the fear,” Stark said during a media briefing earlier this week. “They’re not extreme changes – we’re moving progressively towards a situation where we’ve removed carbon from our daily lives, and that’s not something that we should be afraid of at all, and the government has to guide that.”

For its part, the government yesterday rejected the CCC’s claims it is moving too slowly on net zero policy as “widely off the mark”, pointing to the 44 per cent cut in UK emissions since 1990, and its adoption of stronger, world-leading decarbonisation targets for 2030 and 2035 over the past year.

At the same time Ministers are facing growing pressure from a number of high profile backbench MPs and media outlets, which have started to step up their criticism of the net zero target and the potential costs of meeting it, arguing the public will oppose measures such as the shift away from internal combustion engine cars and gas boilers.

However, today’s survey results provide further evidence that opposition to climate action may be being overstated, and that the public does not divide neatly along the lines being drawn in the so-called culture war. A separate analysis this week from former government advisor Sam Freeman similarly showed that on many topics, including climate change, large majorities of the public adopt more progressive positions than many right-leaning media outlets suggest.

As today’s survey results suggest, the UK public appears to be in-step with the bulk of the business community: both well aware of the net zero challenge ahead, yet keen to accelerate the transition and begin reaping the benefits of a cleaner, greener economy.

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