Is keeping the lights on more important than stopping climate change?

How far people are willing to take personal action to prevent climate change is one of the big policy questions. When considering a major global issue like climate change, many people will consider that they cannot have an impact, and that they should leave it to the government, if indeed they think it’s worth tackling at all.

A new poll by ComRes tackles this question. Having been commissioned by Centrica, its focus is on domestic energy usage, and it suggests a tension between what people are doing now and what they might be willing to do in the future.

According to the poll, three quarters of UK adults have recently tried to reduce the amount of gas and electricity they use. The reasons given for these reductions are interesting:


That price should be top isn’t surprising, but I’m struck that nearly twice as many say they reduced their energy use to help the environment as say they did so to protect the UK’s energy supply.

This surprised me a little because polling I’ve seen in the past has shown that, as reasons for energy conservation, energy security is generally more compelling than climate change.

And we do in fact see something similar in a later question in this poll.

When we move away from what people are doing, and onto what they want the government to do, we get a different picture:

So now the positions are reversed. People are about twice as likely to think that the government’s energy priority should be securing the energy supply than that its priority should be making the energy supply more environmentally friendly.

Perhaps this is a matter of pragmatism, reflecting the scale of the government compared with individuals. People might think that the government can have an impact on securing the UK’s energy supply, while individually they cannot.

But at the same time, there also seems to be a view that individuals can have an impact on climate change, which as a challenge appears at least as enormous as energy security.

And a third question confuses things further. Respondents were asked how much additional they’d be prepared to pay for their energy bills per year by 2020, to achieve certain goals.

It’s not a great question. Since energy bills vary so widely between properties it’s hard to know what to make of the answers in isolation.  But comparing the results is interesting.

On average, people say they would pay £81 more “to make sure the lights stay on in the future”. Yet, they would only pay £67 more “to make sure sources of energy are more environmentally friendly”.

So, people say they’re cutting back now to protect the environment, more than for energy security. Energy security, they say, is the government’s responsibility and not theirs.

But when thinking about what they’d do in the future, there’s more willingness to make sacrifices to keep electricity flowing than to make them in the name of environmentalism.

Perhaps this is about how the issues are framed. The lights going out is a clear, tangible threat. Making sacrifices for unspecified environmental reasons doesn’t have such an evident benefit. It may be that this is emphasised by the way these particular questions are worded, but they don’t seem especially unusual in using this frame.

It’s not the first time we’ve seen evidence to suggest a lack of depth in current environmentally friendly behaviour. If people are indeed less concerned about the environment than their willingness to make some cut-backs might suggest, there is a danger that such actions won’t be sustained when confronted with other pressures.

  1. […] month we saw data on whether climate change or energy security is seen as more […]