DEBATE: Should there be a referendum on Net Zero?

Connor Tomlinson

November 2, 2021

Colin Malaney, Head of UK Programmes at the Conservative Environment Network, argues NO

In the 2019 General Election, more than 95 percent of voters – over 30 million people – backed parties with manifesto commitments to Net Zero emissions.

Net Zero by 2050 was on the opening page of the Conservative manifesto.

And it wasn’t a bolt from the blue. Boris Johnson has – in his usual bombastic style – made clear his support for environmental action for many years.

Recent polling only fortifies Johnson’s cast-iron mandate. YouGov found the British public oppose holding a net zero referendum by a ratio of more than 2 to 1, and would rather the government got on with cutting emissions instead.

Support for referendums in abstract terms, mirrored across every policy, melt away once the delaying consequences are clear. The argument for a referendum on net zero is as weak as the argument for a referendum on plans for the NHS or schools.

Polling conducted by Opinium for the Conservative Environment Network found most people want the government to do more to halt climate change, and support action this day even if other countries like China are lagging. A paltry 8 percent of the UK public oppose the government’s net zero target, with nearly 70 percent of people supportive. The results were virtually the same in ‘red wall’ seats.

Then there are the outstanding electoral victories won by net zero champions like Ben Houchen in Tees Valley. The truth is that net zero sceptics have lost the substantive argument, so are now quarrelling with the process.

And why shouldn’t we back net zero? It means millions of clean jobs in new, homegrown industries. It means investment and levelling up in our industrial heartlands. It means a better future for the next generation who can avoid the worst effects of climate change.

No wonder voices from every wing of the Conservative Party – including Lord Michael Howard, Theresa Villiers, Nick Fletcher, Andy Street, Sir Bernard Jenkin and Mark Harper – recently reaffirmed their commitment to net zero in a good luck message for COP26.

They get it. The British people get it. We really don’t need a referendum to prove it.

Connor Tomlinson, Policy Director at the British Conservation Alliance, argues YES

Net zero is a desirable goal. Energy independence would sever our unsavoury reliance on Russian gas, Chinese batteries, and Saudi Arabian oil.

But, when confronted with the costs and risks involved with the arbitrary 2050 timeframe, taxpayers become sceptical as to if it’s worth imploding our economy over 1 percent of global emissions. We’re in a Cold War with the aforementioned adversarial countries; and China’s coal-plants are set to undo our progress sixteen times over. Bankrupting Britain for £3 trillion for a renewables grid that only generates 27 percent of consumer energy needs, and has no protections against outages, would be a white flag waved on the world stage.  

It is apparent that the net zero commitment—a footnote on the ‘Get Brexit Done’ low tax and nationally sovereign 2019 manifesto—is the driving animus of the contemporary Conservative party.

But the Red Wall didn’t lend their votes to blue only to receive green. Boris promised to be a libertarian; but has abandoned these principles for a utilitarian approach to meeting his ideological low-carbon utopian goal. With the attitude that earned a landslide victory abandoned, it’s time the people were allowed to remind the government what we wanted them to do.  

Net zero needs a referendum well before the next election. Environmental wellness shouldn’t be perused with big-state schemes, bankrupting costs, and by a deadline with (at best) coinflip odds on if it would make any difference. Take the time constraints off, and get government out of the way so the market can innovate to a cleaner, greener future at an organic pace. 


  • Connor Tomlinson is the Head of Research at the British Conservation Alliance, and a political commentator with Young Voices UK. He appears regularly in C3 Magazine, AIER, and on talkRadio. Follow him on Twitter: @Con_Tomlinson

  • Colin is the Head of UK Programmes at the Conservative Environment Network.

Written by Connor Tomlinson

Connor Tomlinson is the Head of Research at the British Conservation Alliance, and a political commentator with Young Voices UK. He appears regularly in C3 Magazine, AIER, and on talkRadio. Follow him on Twitter: @Con_Tomlinson

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