Energy taxes: new polls show why they’re under attack

A glut of polls this week has shown more clearly what the country thinks about government levies on energy bills. The results tell us both why the measures are under attack, and also how environmentally-conscious politicians can protect funding for renewables.

According to the polls:

1. There’s support for green taxes in principle

The Mail on Sunday must have been disappointed when their Survation poll last week found that people are generally happy with green taxes used to pay for renewables. They asked the question in several ways, but every time found that people are more likely to support green taxes than oppose them. For example:


2. People don’t want to pay green taxes themselves

But things change when the polls ask whether people are actually willing to pay personally for green measures. This week, the Mail on Sunday had another go, with more direct questions, and found roughly three-to-one opposition to ‘green taxes’ being on energy bills when they had a price tag attached:


Together these two points look a bit like what Hopi Sen calls ‘pony polling’: would you like something nice (that someone else will pay for)?

Except it’s not quite that, because:

3. People are willing to pay levies for social measures

This week’s Mail on Sunday poll asked about each of the social and green measures that add costs to energy bills. It found there’s more support for keeping the things that directly benefit consumers – particularly those that distribute help to the poorest people*:

So there’s a specific problem with support for renewables. People want renewables to be expanded, but not so much that they’re actually happy to pay more themselves.

With the parties agreeing that energy bills are too high and with the scrutiny on the government levies, it’s likely that the levies will be changed, though from the chart above, the social measures should be secure (it would be a massive own goal for the Tories to remove another measure protecting the poor when it doesn’t help with deficit reduction).

But the question is whether, after any changes, funding for green measures will survive (through some other means), or if they’ll be cut by a government that reckons it gets more credit from reducing the cost of living than it gets opprobrium for abandoning efforts to be green.

For those who want to stop the green measures losing their funding, there are a couple of arguments that I think can be made.

Firstly, people are willing in principle to make sacrifices for sustainability, but they don’t see the personal benefits. These need to be made much clearer, for example:

  • How much cheaper bills will be if we expand renewables rather than continuing with as much gas, coal and nuclear.
  • What climate change will mean for the UK – ie you, your family, your community ­– if we don’t tackle it now.

These are already being argued to an extent, but can be said with much more clarity, consistency and volume.

Secondly, the way renewables are paid for needs to be made visibly fairer. Everyone in the UK benefits from the state education system (directly and indirectly), but we don’t expect it to be funded through pay-per-use. Instead, we expect that this common good is paid for through a progressive tax.

This week’s YouGov poll found the same thing holds for energy bills: the most popular solution is for renewables to switch from being paid through energy bills, to being funded out of other taxes:

So funding for renewables looks like the weakest link in government levies on energy bills. Support for it is stronger in principle than when people are faced with the reality of what it costs. The benefits aren’t really being made clear. An anti-green politician might make the case that we should scale back our support for renewables for a few years for the sake of cutting people’s bills.

But there’s a widespread gut feeling that it’s right for the UK to tackle climate change and switch to a less polluting renewable energy supply. Arguments for supporting renewables will reach an audience that’s prepared to listen – but those arguments need to be made, or there may not be enough of a political cost to stop the government abandoning its green commitments.


* This is a really important result and challenges the common view that people are now unwilling to pay more to help the poorest in society.


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