Climate Sock

UK worries about climate are at a 5-year high – new analysis of climate polling since 2005

Posted in Climate Sock on May 4th, 2017 by Leo – Comments Off on UK worries about climate are at a 5-year high – new analysis of climate polling since 2005

UK worries about climate change are at their joint-highest level for five years according to new data published today. The government’s new poll found that 71% say they’re concerned about climate change – about the same as its poll last year and as high as any poll since 2012.

In the US worries about climate recently went reached record levels.

It might be that a Trump effect has pushed up concern in the US: his dismissal of climate change may have perversely, drawn attention to the issue. Or perhaps it reflects the accumulation of severe weather events in the US and the success of campaigners there in raising concern about it them.

For whatever reason, worries in the UK haven’t seen such a dramatic increase, but have been gradually growing for the last few years.

As far as I’m aware, this blog is the first place to have compiled this 12-year data series – which comes from the near-identical question asked in several different sources – to produce this long-running tracker of UK worries about the climate. The latest finding is from the UK government’s opinion survey, the latest wave of which is published today.

See below for the data sources and why I’m not totally happy with comparing these results – but overall I think it’s ok to put them together and compare the trend over time.

The data comes from various different surveys, some of which I don’t have the full data for:

Oct-Nov 2005 – MORI, age 15+

May 2008 – MORI, age 15+

Jan-Mar 2010 – MORI, age 15+

Mar 2011, Aug 2012, Mar 2013, Aug-Oct 2014 – MORI, age 16+

Jun-Jul 2012, Mar 2013, Mar 2014, Mar 2015, Mar 2016, Mar 2017 – TNS, age 16+

I doubt the small age variation makes much difference.

My main concern is I haven’t seen some of the questionnaires/full data tables, so it’s not clear whether there were other questions that might have influenced respondents before they were asked about climate change.

The main risk is obviously the 2005 data. Since that’s the outlier in terms of worries, it would be useful to know if anything was done differently in the questionnaire (for example, did it follow other questions about the environment or severe weather events?). All I have is a reference to the 2005 results in a report from 2010. Given it’s so unlike the other results it might be tempting to assume there’s something dubious about it – but as we saw in the US, worries about climate change were higher around 2005 so it does seem possible the data here is right. Given that, I’m inclined to believe the results are ok.

Worries about climate change are at record levels. Is this a new chapter in public opinion?

Posted in Climate Sock, U.S. on March 16th, 2017 by Leo – Comments Off on Worries about climate change are at record levels. Is this a new chapter in public opinion?

Public opinion is rarely tidy but sometimes there are clear trends in the popular mood. A new poll suggests there has been a shift in public opinion about climate change, with a surge in worries about the threat.

Since polls began asking about climate change, worries about the issue in rich English-speaking countries (the places where denial has been prominent) have gone through the following broad stages:

Up to 2007: public discovery of the problem and increasing worries (with a peak around 2000, a fall after 9/11 and a recovery until around 2007)

2008-2010: rapid decline in worries, accelerated by Copenhagen and the 2009 email hack

2011-2016: slow increase in worries, back to around 2009 levels

The new poll – of the US public, by Gallup – suggests we may be in a new stage. Concern about climate change appears to have past 2009 levels and to now exceed all previous peaks.

2017-onwards: concern increasing to record levels (?)

Is that a justifiable conclusion?

A problem is that this is just one poll. It’s the only one I’m aware of that shows concern to now be greater than it’s ever previously been. It might be a rogue result, outside the margin of error.

But… It’s 8-points up on the previous year’s poll, and 4 above any previous. This poll would have to have been a real statistical fluke for the true level of public concern not be the highest since at least 2009.

And a different poll, from the UK, suggests something similar.

Various people have asked the “is climate change real” question (FWIW, I don’t like the question – it’s confused by political identity and doesn’t reflect what people actually want done about emissions – but these results are so striking I can’t ignore it). Since 2009 responses to this question were uncannily static. But in February this year ECIU’s poll showed a sudden jump.

So that’s more evidence that we’ve started a new chapter.

Yet I’m still not sure it’s definitive that worries are at record levels. We can probably say concern about climate change is greater than it’s been any time since 2010 – in the US at least – but there’s not enough evidence to be sure it’s at the highest level ever.

One issue is Gallup’s chart shows only the percentage that worry a great deal about climate change. In the equivalent chart last year they combined it with those that worry a fair amount. If we do the same for this year’s data, we find worries this year are no higher than they were in 2008 and are still lower than they were in 1999-2000.

So if we’re still, if not on the fence, at least within touching distance of it, what more evidence might persuade us that worries really are smashing records?

In the UK, the government’s quarterly climate and energy poll asks a question once a year on concern about climate change. The question uses the same wording that MORI has run since 2005, giving a nice comparison that will allow us to test the theory. The next wave, due to be published in late April, should ask that question, so we’ll have more evidence soon about whether concern is rising.

And in Australia, the Lowy Institute has run the same climate question since 2006 in its annual poll. The next wave should be out in June.

In both that and the UK poll, concern in 2016 was still some way below the pre-2010 peak, although the highest for a few years. I wouldn’t be surprised if this year’s data shows worries are up but not yet at record levels.

Putting it together, the evidence is clear that worries about climate change have been rising for several years. Last year concern was around where it was in the late 2000s. This year, either worries have stopped increasing or they’re moving towards record levels. It may be too early to say for sure but the initial evidence suggests concern is still rising.

Hinkley Point and grammar schools show May’s electoral priorities – and why she could have a problem with airport expansion

Posted in Climate Sock, Politics, Transport on September 18th, 2016 by Leo – Comments Off on Hinkley Point and grammar schools show May’s electoral priorities – and why she could have a problem with airport expansion

Approval of Hinkley Point and plans for more secondary moderns might seem unrelated – but they have a shared politics and point towards a decision in favour of expanding either Heathrow or Gatwick.

Hinkley and selective education are both unpopular with the left and with most experts. Increasing the number of secondary moderns is so evidently bad for most children that even Corbyn could take May apart on it. And although the debate about Hinkley Point’s merits is more disputed, in both cases the government will face a long battle to achieve what it’s promised.

But the political appeal for Theresa May is clear.

Her message is that this is a government that will act decisively to promote jobs and skills. Grammar schools and Hinkley convey this effectively to one of May’s key target audiences.

In YouGov’s poll from before the secondary moderns announcement, the only groups of which a majority supported new grammars were 2015 Tory voters and Ukip voters, and the over 65s. The polls on Hinkley are less useful but this recent Opinium poll found that the same three groups are the strongest supporters of new nuclear power stations.

This seems a clear sign that May’s top target in any early election wouldn’t be people who voted for Miliband last year and are now put off by Corbyn. She’d go for those who voted for Farage.

This makes electoral sense. There are 67 Labour-held seats where the combined 2015 Tory and Ukip vote was more than the Labour share. Flipping those to Tory would give a Blair-style landslide. (This is pre-boundary changes)

When it comes to airport expansion, public opinion is divided, but support seems to be strongest among the same groups who support Hinkley and grammar schools. This 2015 Populus poll found the over 65s to be the only age group in which a majority supports expansion.

If the government is prepared to force more schools to become secondary moderns – in the face of all evidence about their benefit – the fact that London airport expansion is supported by the same people makes it seem likely that the government will go ahead.

But there’s one problem that could transform the calculation.

Support for grammar schools is evenly spread across the country. Support for London airport expansion isn’t. While 52% of Londoners supported expansion in that Populus poll, among people in many other parts of the country, support is only 35-39%.

This won’t be a problem for the government so long as the decision is seen to only affect London and the South East. Many people outside those areas are indifferent – they see it as a question for London that doesn’t affect them.

But, as I found in my paper for the Campaign for Better Transport last month, building a new runway in London means airports in the rest of the country will be restricted in size. Ticket prices would go up for all flights across the country.

This is hardly mentioned in the debate. As long as it isn’t, London airport expansion will seem to most people to be a London issue – and it will make political sense for May’s government to use it to appeal to the same people who like grammar schools and nuclear power.

But of those 67 target seats, only nine are in London and the South East. If it were widely realised that London airport expansion would restrict growth in the rest of the country, the plans may be a lot less politically appealing than they seem.

 

Airport expansion is either the end of carbon budgets or the end of cheap flights

Posted in Climate Sock, Transport on August 8th, 2016 by Leo – 1 Comment

This is a slightly extended version of an article that was originally published by the Guardian.

You might hope we’d learn our lesson. But less than two month after the EU referendum, with the promised £350 million replaced by looming job losses and downgraded growth, we’re on the brink of falling for another fantasy.

This time, it isn’t the promise of a magic money tree: it’s the claim that we can build a new runway without needing to worry about our carbon emissions.

When the government’s Airports Commission endorsed the expansion of Heathrow last year it was challenged to explain how the UK could expand its airports without breaking climate change laws that limit greenhouse gas emissions.

It was a reasonable question. Like most countries, the UK has a tough emissions target for 2050 and, even though aviation has been given an easy ride compared with other industries, the sector is on course to exceed its generous limit. That’s the case even without adding a new runway. Increasing the number of flights from the UK would put the target further out of reach.

Undeterred, the commission responded with reassurance that we can build a new runway without breaking our climate limits. Its confidence seems to have put most people off looking into the details: that and the way the commission scattered, across hundreds of pages in several different publications, its explanation of how it had achieved what seemed impossible.

Analysis that I co-authored might help explain why the commission appeared so reluctant to spell out its workings. In fact, it’s hard to imagine a less popular way of winning public support for a new runway than its suggestion for how expansion could avoid breaking our climate limits.

The essence of the commission’s suggestion is simple, even if the details are difficult to pin down. It proposed that the government could allow a new runway to be built without busting the emissions cap, by hiking the cost of tickets so fewer people can afford to fly. Its idea is to build a new runway in London then increase prices so that demand for flights falls, particularly at airports in poorer parts of the country.

No one can say precisely how big the price increase would need to be to keep the country within its limits, because it depends on how quickly flight technology improves, but today’s report estimates how much more tickets might have to cost.

If technology to make planes more fuel-efficient progresses as quickly as the commission optimistically suggests, a return ticket to New York – from any UK airport, not just the one with the new runway – would become about £270 more expensive after a new runway is built. But if technology moves more slowly, as many analysts think it will, the flight could cost £850 more. Price increases like these would spell the end of budget flying; long-haul trips would be affordable only to the rich.

People worried about climate change shouldn’t kid themselves that this is a realistic solution to the emissions problems a new runway brings. It’s near-impossible to imagine the government putting such a high price on flying purely to protect the environment: after all, it couldn’t bring itself to increase fuel duty for drivers this year despite two years of falling prices. It’s far more likely that a new runway – and the rest of the UK’s airport capacity – will be used, busting our climate limits.

If the runway really is built, the best hope of keeping flights affordable without breaking our climate targets may be for the government to tax frequent fliers at a higher rate than those going on holiday just once or twice a year, so more people can still travel. This approach was outlined last year by A Free Ride and could be the cleanest and fairest answer, but would depend on a level of serious political engagement with this challenge that has so far been absent.

Sometime soon the government will finally make a decision about a new runway. To many, it seems the question of how the runway can avoid breaking our climate change law has been resolved, but in fact, all we’ve had is a series of possibilities. We should understand where the path leads before taking another step into the dark.

 

Should you believe polls of what China thinks about climate change?

Posted in Attitudes, China, Climate Sock, International on December 6th, 2015 by Leo – Comments Off on Should you believe polls of what China thinks about climate change?

Some years ago I managed a few research projects that used in-depth interviews with businesspeople in various countries. In most places, our interviewers would quickly get the respondents talking, giving me dozens of pages of transcripts to work through.

But when the interviews were in China, we’d get monosyllables. However carefully we set up the questions to invite considered responses, and however much the interviewers probed, the answers were usually of just of one word; occasionally a terse sentence. After a while I began to think it was impossible to do in-depth interviews in China, at least with the approach we were trying.

I mention this because two recent climate change polls have got me wondering again about research in China, and whether the results are reliable.

After a bit of digging, which I describe in this article, I’m increasingly uncertain about the reliability of poll findings from China – specifically here polls on climate change – though I can’t go as far as to say they’re definitely wrong.

The two recent polls both showed the proportion of Chinese people saying they think climate change is a very serious problem. According to YouGov’s poll the figure is 52%, while Pew put it at just 18%.

The latter of these generated headlines about a lack of worry about climate change in China – which of course fits with a sceptic/denier narrative that richer countries shouldn’t cut emissions because China isn’t doing anything. But having looked at the polls, I’m not sure such headlines are warranted.

At first glance, it seems like at least one of these polls must be wrong. The question wording is similar, they were conducted around the same time, yet the results are way beyond the margin of error.

In fact, there may be an easy explanation here: the YouGov poll is of their panellists and was weighted to be representative of the adult online population, while the Pew poll purports to be randomly sampled and nationally representative.

Actually, if YouGov’s panel was typical of the Chinese online population, the online/face-to-face split still couldn’t explain all the difference. Apparently, nearly half of the Chinese population is now online; even if we were to make the heroic assumption that none of the offline population thought climate change is a very serious problem, we’d still end up with nearly 26% saying it was very serious from YouGov’s numbers – again, beyond the Pew margin of error.

We might instead put this down to YouGov’s panel being unrepresentative of the Chinese population in general: perhaps they’re people who are more engaged with the news or international affairs than the average person.

Except, there’s another problem.

The Pew poll is not only out of line with YouGov’s survey, it’s also different from the result Pew found last time it asked the same question: the proportion saying it’s a very serious problem has more than halved:

 China

This seems pretty weird to me. I’m not aware of such a large shift in attitudes towards climate change over five years in any country, including in the UK and US following the UEA email hoax six years ago.

For comparison, here’s a graphic I keep to hand showing the stability of UK opinion on the climate over that period.

 Climate polls

I can think of a few possible explanations for the difference in the Pew results.

The first is that there truly has been a large shift in attitudes to climate change in China. At the moment I have no way of proving this either way, but a shift of this magnitude would be unusual and should have some explanation. I can’t think of any such explanation, though there may well be something that, in my ignorance of Chinese debates, I’m unaware of.

A second possibility is that there isn’t a true public opinion about climate change in China. This would fit with John Zaller’s view that public opinion mostly doesn’t exist: people only have ‘opinions’ on many issues (perhaps not on all issues, though) when they’re asked to express their view, for example by a pollster. At that point, they sample from the, perhaps contradictory, opinions they’ve previously heard and accepted. This is a recipe for volatility: people’s opinion one day may not be the same the next, and they’re easily swayed by what they hear from elites.

This would perhaps explain the volatility from 2007-2009 as well as the change from 2010-2015, but it doesn’t feel seem it can be the full picture. It’s not clear why China’s population would show such volatility while those in other countries would have more stable views. Perhaps climate change is talked about much less often in China than it is in other places, so people have less opportunity to form fixed opinion there. Again, I don’t know enough about Chinese debates to settle this, but given that Chinese respondents seem to say ‘don’t know’ to climate questions less often than people in other countries, I’m not convinced. It’s also not like most people in the UK or US hear or talk about climate change very often, anyway.

A third option is that Pew got super unlucky with their sample. With a perfectly sampled poll, one in twenty will produce a result that’s outside the margin of error, relative to the true value of public opinion (if such a thing exists). Through no fault of the samplers, Pew might have just happened to pick the people who really aren’t worried about climate change. This is possible – and maybe China has such diversity of opinion between areas that the sampling approach is more prone to this kind of bad luck – but they’d have to have been supremely unlucky for this to explain the size of the gap (unless particularly factors in the structure of Chinese opinion make it more likely).

This leaves a fourth option – changes in sampling – which I’ll discuss in more detail.

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What’s the point of UK climate policy?

Posted in Climate Sock, Energy sources, Politics on November 23rd, 2015 by Leo – Comments Off on What’s the point of UK climate policy?

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.

UK climate policy 1

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.

UK climate policy 2

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.

How Labour can take on the government’s energy and climate policy

Posted in Climate Sock, Energy sources, Politics on November 6th, 2015 by Leo – Comments Off on How Labour can take on the government’s energy and climate policy

This was originally published on LabourList.

After tax credits, energy and climate policy are now the Tories’ greatest vulnerability and should be a top Labour priority. But while the shadow team have been attacking the Government, their criticisms haven’t yet damaged the Tories, allowing them to get away with policies that are killing jobs and unnecessarily increasing bills.

On energy, there’s an opportunity for Labour to label the Tories’ current approach as incompetent, with recent decisions appearing to be contradictory. One minute, the Government is cutting subsidies for solar and wind: both clean and popular sources of power. The next, it’s signing a deal for a new nuclear plant at Hinkley Point that commits to generating electricity for decades at eye-watering costs.

This allows Labour to argue that the government’s decisions are directly making life worse for people across the country. The unexpected slashing of support for solar has already cost over 1000 jobs and the industry claims up to 27,000 are at risk as a result of government policy.

At the same time, the nuclear deal is expected to add over £1bn a year to households’ energy bills: the equivalent of around £40 per household, every year, for 35 years. While we need new power sources, few outside the government argue this is the best-value way of providing it.

Put these together and you’ve got a neat criticism of Government policy. We’re losing skilled manual jobs in what should a growth industry, while also putting an unnecessary cost on already-stretched families. Both fit with the tax credits frame that the government is undermining work and adding to the burden on poorer families.

The combination of the two is important, as it allows Labour to show it’s not just looking for government subsidies to protect jobs and promote growth, but that it also expects public money to be spent well and not wasted on overpriced vanity projects.

To her credit, Lisa Nandy has been attacking the government on this and Labour is developing policies for community energy production. But it’s been left to her and the rest of the shadow Energy and Climate Change team to take on the Tories about these issues and they haven’t had much attention from those not already interested in the area.

Labour could do more damage if the leadership gave this a higher priority. This is an opportunity to either force a change in policy or do lasting damage to the Tories’ reputation: the Hinkley Point contract could be seen as their Millennium Dome, but for now it’s not getting enough attention.

Similarly, Labour can force a change in the Government’s climate policy.

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Heathrow expansion, climate change and virtue signalling

Posted in Climate Sock, Transport on October 11th, 2015 by Leo – Comments Off on Heathrow expansion, climate change and virtue signalling

“Climate change is one of the most serious threats facing the world today… It is in our national interest to act and ensure others act with us”

David Cameron is the only party leader who signed that pledge in February still in his job, but both Clegg and Miliband’s successors have echoed the sentiment and there’s apparent cross-party consensus that climate change is a serious problem that requires action.

But while that consensus is a great advance on what came before and produced the Climate Change Act, it masks the reality that political commitment to climate change is weaker than it now needs to be.

For a politician or commentator, saying you want strong action on climate change has become a form of virtue signalling: showing off your supposed commitment to tackling a future, widely-recognised and scientifically-backed worldwide threat that will most hit the poorest and future generations (who generally aren’t your electorate) – all without needing to make any difficult decisions.

You might think I’m having a pop at the government here, and in part I am. Despite Cameron’s February pledge and the election manifesto, which supported the Climate Change Act, the first few months of this government have produced a string of cuts and reversals that look set to undermine efforts to reduce emissions. At the same time, the government has maintained an official commitment to meeting our climate targets.

That’s become well known and a target of campaigners’ anger. But what worries me just as much is the less obvious loss of seriousness about climate change among the kind of people who had previously been its strong allies.

This has become clear with the approaching decision on airport expansion. As I’ve argued, expanding our airport capacity would mean either hugely ramping up ticket prices to cut demand and meet our climate targets or keeping prices constant and failing to meet our targets. Since it would be obviously stupid to build a huge new runway and then direct policy to make sure that new capacity isn’t used, it’s pretty much inevitable that building the runway would mean we don’t achieve our targets.

This is the first really hard climate change decision a UK government has ever had to make – and it’s exposing the thinness of many people’s supposed commitment to tackling the problem.

If it weren’t for the climate problem, I would be tempted to back the runway. It’s true there are some other good arguments against expansion, like whether we really need more capacity, and the effect on local air and noise pollution (so maybe build at Gatwick instead). But clever people say it would produce jobs, make the UK more competitive and bring affordable holidays in reach of more low-income people.

But, we do have that climate problem and I haven’t seen anyone offer a serious way of reconciling expansion and our targets. The Davies Commission’s proposal obviously wouldn’t work, so in reality expansion means giving up a serious expectation that we will meet our target (you might hope for a technological breakthrough, but bear in mind the Davies Commission already relies on this with its implausible ticket-hiking plan, so you would need an even bigger deus ex machina and no serious analyst is predicting this).

And yet, many people who signal their climate virtue also support airport expansion.

A quick search of comments by Labour MPs produces the following:

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Why Labour’s modernisers should back Corbyn’s resistance to Heathrow expansion

Posted in Climate Sock, Transport on September 19th, 2015 by Leo – Comments Off on Why Labour’s modernisers should back Corbyn’s resistance to Heathrow expansion

This was originally published on Labour List.

It’s now clear that Labour will oppose Heathrow expansion. Not only did Jeremy Corbyn say during the leadership campaign that he’d vote against it, but his Shadow Chancellor, John McDonnell, is a vocal opponent.

Many Labour modernisers will be alarmed by this stance. In the eyes of many, one of the top reasons for defeat in May was that the party wasn’t trusted with the economy. To win again, Labour must show it won’t undermine growth.

So during the campaign, the leadership candidates most focused on winning votes from the centre presented themselves as able to regain economic credibility. When the Davies Commission recommended expanding Heathrow, Liz Kendall immediately responded by calling for a decision to build the new runway, which quickly became Party policy.

The political calculation was obvious. While the Tories were split and dithering, supporting Heathrow expansion would allow Labour to outflank them as the party of job creation.

The modernisers presumably considered arguments against expansion, particularly from residents who would be hit by worse air pollution and noise. This seems to be Corbyn’s main objection to it. But it’s understandable that candidates aspiring to lead the country prioritised what they saw as a national benefit over a local cost.

What their calculation may not have taken into account – understandably as it was glossed over in the Davies Report and barely featured in the coverage – was whether expansion can be reconciled with the UK’s climate change targets. This is where what may seem like good politics turns out to be not only bad policy but also bad politics.

The UK is committed under the Climate Change Act to cutting its greenhouse gas emissions by 80% of 1990 levels by 2050. So far we’ve done a reasonable job: we’re broadly on course and last year emissions fell by 6%.

Plans for meeting the 2050 target are already generous to aviation. While emissions from the rest of the economy are due to be cut by 85% on 1990 levels, aviation’s emissions are allowed to grow by around 120%. All that emissions growth was already used from 1990 to 2005, but the plans allow for an additional increase in passenger numbers of 60%: a leniency that assumes overall aviation emissions can be kept constant as emissions per passenger are reduced with future technological fixes. This expansion will likely be overwhelmingly for leisure travel: business travel represents less than a sixth of international travel in UK airports and has been falling in both relative and absolute terms.

But, unless aviation growth is limited, we will miss even this generous target. According to the Department for Transport, emissions will be well above their target even without airport expansion; a new Heathrow runway puts us still further off course.

When pushed, the Davies Commission offered an eye-watering solution to meet the target. They suggested reducing demand for flights by greatly increasing the price of carbon (as well as other difficult measures). Even if planes become about a third more efficient, the Commission’s case for expanding Heathrow assumes that a London-New York return ticket should cost around £325 more than now (the range of prices they suggest vary hugely, with some much higher). The Commission’s scenario is based on optimistic assumptions about future technology, so we’d need even greater, and less realistic, breakthroughs to resolve this dilemma.

So the proposal appears to be to expand Heathrow but to avoid using all of the new capacity by making flying so much more expensive it’ll again become available only to richer travellers.

This means it’s impossible to be in favour of more than two out of three of: building and fully using a new runway, keeping flights affordable for poorer travellers, and meeting our climate targets. If you agree the UK should meet those targets and that foreign holidays should be available to poorer families, the policy argument for expanding Heathrow is challenging. Expanding an airport but not using the capacity is so obviously a waste of money I can only assume the Commission doesn’t really think we should meet our climate targets.

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The centre-left has forgotten about climate change

Posted in Climate Sock on August 31st, 2015 by Leo – Comments Off on The centre-left has forgotten about climate change

This was originally published on openDemocracy

A growing awareness has spread among people worried about climate change that it can’t be tackled without support from the political right. Recently, several campaigning and research organisations have discussed how climate change can be presented in ways that appeal more to conservative and free-market sensibilities.

But this new focus on engaging the right, welcome though it is, overlooks a problem that is no less threatening to efforts to limit climate change. Worries about the climate aren’t just lacking on the political right: over the last few years, climate change has also largely disappeared as a priority for the centre-left.

Less than a decade ago, it seemed impossible to win power in the UK without a commitment to climate change. As it became clear that restrictions on emissions were inevitable, David Cameron saw the danger in being left behind and went to husky-hugging efforts to show that his party was at least as pro-climate as Labour.

Since the 2010 election, however, the main parties’ commitment to climate change has waned. It was often remarked that the 2010-2015 coalition government failed to live up to its goal of being the ‘greenest government ever’, while the new government, free from the moderating influence of the Liberal Democrats, has already abolished several measures designed to cut emissions. But the journey of the centre-left wing of Labour (that is, the right of the party) has attracted less attention.

The Labour government under Tony Blair, its most centrist leader, was more forward-thinking on tackling climate change than any previous administration. While far from perfect on the environment, Blair’s government pushed world leaders to agree a deal at the Kyoto climate conference, introduced the Climate Change Bill and created the Carbon Trust, among many other measures aimed at cutting emissions. For Labour’s centre-left, just as it was for David Cameron at the time, wanting to address climate change was a sign of modernity rather than something to be embarrassed about.

Economic credibility vs the climate

The economic crisis changed this. Now, the centre-left is overwhelmingly focused on tackling what it considers to be the main reason for Labour’s latest election defeat: the perception that the party can’t be trusted with the economy. In their view, Labour won’t be elected again until it persuades voters that it will never again drive the car into the ditch (as many people see it).

This means demonstrations of economic competence are prioritised over actions to tackle climate change to a greater extent than before. Witness the response of Labour’s leadership candidates to the recent proposal for a new runway at Heathrow. As soon as the proposal was made, Liz Kendall, the most centrist candidate, called on the government to approve the plans. This was quickly confirmed as Labour’s policy.

The political calculation is obvious. If Labour’s centre-left believes the party can’t win without restoring Labour’s reputation for economic competence, the loss of support of the relatively few people greatly concerned about climate change might seem a price worth paying. Their priority isn’t to win over the 1.1 million people who voted Green, but to gain enough support from Conservative voters to form a majority.

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