It’s a strange time for UK climate policy. One week the Foreign Secretary argues that strong action to cut emissions is the conservative thing to do. The next, the Energy and Climate Secretary announces that the UK will close its coal plants, but proposes replacing them with gas while doing little to prevent us missing both our 2020 renewable energy targets and the 4th carbon budget in the mid-‘20s.
It seems the government is content to reaffirm its commitment to our climate targets, without offering policies to achieve them. If that’s the case, what’s the political calculation behind it? Is there a political benefit to the government in going slower on climate change – or might there be a cost to it in doing so?
My conclusions are pessimistic. It may be that the rational response to public views about the climate – for a government that isn’t strongly motivated to act on it for other reasons, like its own convictions, or pressure from backbenchers or industry – is to be perceived to be tackling it, without going so far as to impose significant costs on the public or any groups sufficiently influential to cause them problems.
First, I should be clear that climate denial isn’t important here. For this debate you can largely ignore the often-asked questions about whether people think climate change is real and caused by human activity, which appear to show that a significant proportion (just under half, depending on the question) doubt that we’re responsible for climate change. Those polls reflect politics and identity, more than they do policy preferences.
I can say that because polls consistently find overwhelming support for the principle of limiting our emissions – including from many people who claim to think climate change is a natural phenomenon. For example, a Carbon Brief/Opinium 2013 poll found more than 3 in 4 support the UK working with other countries to cut emissions. That includes a majority of those who say climate change is mostly natural (as well as a quarter of those who said it’s not happening at all).
So there’s clearly widespread public support for the government’s overarching goal of cutting emissions.
But it’s a low-salience issue. A large majority might, when prompted by a poll, say they want the government to cut emissions, but few people care deeply. Consistently, only around one in five people seem to be really worried about climate change. For example, another Carbon Brief/Opinium poll found 19% saying they want the government to prioritise tackling climate change over promoting economic growth.
This has created an incentive for the government to pursue half-hearted climate policies.
The positive side of this is that it could be much worse. A small group of people – perhaps 15% at most, depending where you draw the line – oppose any attempt to cut emissions. But if the government did what these people want, for example by repealing the Climate Change Act, it would almost certainly alienate the much larger proportion who normally don’t think about the issue but still want it dealt with.
The image below shows what I mean by this.
I’ve arranged a few of the UK’s existing climate policies in rough order of the level of public opposition they face, from left (less opposition) to right (more opposition). Some policies are opposed by nearly nobody, like better home insulation and incentives for cleaner cars*. Others face more widespread opposition: mostly those that impose visible costs.
Government climate policy seems to be aimed at appealing to the majority of people, in the centre and right of the chart, who want it to deal with climate change, rather than at those who resist nearly all such measures.
That’s the good news. The bad news comes when we wonder why the government doesn’t go further with its climate policies.
There’s certainly a strong case for it to do more. The UK is currently off course for the 2020 renewable energy target, it’s looking like the 4th carbon budget in the mid-‘20s will be a struggle, and we’re about to get a 5th carbon budget that will presumably set another target we’re heading towards missing.
There’s plenty the government could do to correct this if it had the inclination. A higher cap for the Levy Control Framework (or better still, a more progressive alternative) could stimulate investment in renewable power; much more effort on clean heating could begin to wean us off gas boilers; and decent incentives and infrastructure for electric vehicles could greatly increase their uptake.
The trouble is, all of these would put more costs on the public, either through energy bills or some other mechanism**. Then there’s aviation, which has to be reined in if we’re to fulfil the Climate Change Act: ultimately meaning people will have to take fewer flights than they want at current prices.
But, despite an overwhelming majority of people saying the government should tackle climate change, there doesn’t look to be much appetite to accept costs like higher energy bills and less international travel.
I’ve extended the image to the right to reflect this. For example, a ComRes poll this weekend found only 23% saying they’d be prepared to pay more for energy bills to reduce climate change. This is further to the right than the measures we saw previously.
Now we see that government policy doesn’t only cut out the people who oppose all climate policy; it also excludes the views of those who want stronger measures than we currently have. Policies are mostly aimed at the people in the middle – still the majority – who say they want measures to cut emissions, but aren’t prepared to accept more costs to achieve them.
It’s not hard to see the attraction for the government. Pursuing the policies in the middle allows it to say it’s acting on climate change, thus inoculating itself against the attack that it’s undermining our future. This keeps climate change as a low-salience issue. Most people don’t care enough to wade through the arguments about whether it’s doing enough. Meanwhile, if it adopted the policies on either the left or the right of the scale it would presumably alienate some of those in the middle.
But our current policies are nevertheless insufficient to meet the tough climate targets we face over the next decade. Achieving those would require the government to spend political capital arguing that we need measures (those at the right of the scale) that currently don’t have much support.
The make-up of the group on the right, who’d support higher costs for climate policies, is interesting. Among those who say they’d pay higher energy bills to tackle climate change, the Tories aren’t doing badly: they’re winning about as many of these people as they are of the whole population. So, the Tory brand doesn’t seem to be toxic to people who support higher-cost climate policies. That might suggest there could be a political gain for the Tories in going further with such policies: if they’ve already won some of this group, it’s possible they could win some of the 28% of Labour supporters or 35% of Lib Dem supporters who say the same.
But, the age and social grade splits show how this is a bit more complex. Support for such policies is particularly strong among the young (37% of 18-24 vs 19% of 65+) and social grades AB (29%) rather than C2 (19%) or DE (16%). On the one hand, there may be AB Labour voters who will be alienated by Corbyn and winnable for the Tories. But on the other, the Tories are clearly determined to retain their support among pensioners; and the damage tax credits cuts could do to their support among harder-up working families may well discourage the Tories from doing anything to further alienate those voters.
Adopting stronger climate policies could boost the Tory reputation as being modern and having a plan for the next 10 to 20 years: this might help them win younger, more affluent Labour/Lib Dem voters. But set against this is the damage that such policies might do to their support among less-well-off working voters. Since the latter group are often a key swing demographic in marginal seats, such concerns might explain why climate policies seem to be slanted in their favour.
Clearly this is an enormous challenge for those of us who want the UK to adopt policies that give a good chance of meeting our climate targets. To overcome this, the political cost of adopting such policies needs to be reduced (eg by devising them so the burden falls more on those who can most afford it) or the cost of not taking them needs to be increased (eg by getting better at showing why decent climate policies are needed).
Few politicians want to say that we’re going to have to accept restrictions, especially when it’s for a goal that not very many people are exercised about (unlike, say, security from terrorism). The government has so far shown little sign of taking this on, preferring instead to remain within a comfort zone where it’s mostly safe from being attacked for doing too little on the climate. Unless either the government develops a zeal for cutting emissions, or there’s a public shift towards wanting tougher climate policies, it’s not clear where the pressure will come from for this to change.
* The placing of the policies here is partly based on my own estimates. There are some numbers behind them, for example, the goal of signing international climate deals has a net support of +45pts and the carbon floor price has a net support of -11pts. But responses to questions about these policies depend very much on question wording and I haven’t seen any polls that test all of them in a comparable way. For example, I’ve put the “home improvements” policy on the left, but it moves rapidly to the right when it’s described in terms of the cost added to energy bills. The precise order doesn’t matter that much for the point I’m making.
** If we assume higher carbon prices, consistent with the Climate Change Act, in the ‘20s and ‘30s, a UK energy supply without more renewables would in fact be more expensive than otherwise – but this is still too obscure a point to be taken seriously in media coverage and public opinion.