The government has lazily taken the public’s support of its Net Zero agenda for granted. While its ambition to reduce emissions and improve environmental standards is broadly supported, when people are confronted with the prospect of higher taxes and more expensive energy bills, this support starts to evaporate. The public cannot be fooled. They simply will not accept the substantial and growing costs of decarbonisation.
New polling that we commissioned at Net Zero Watch bears this out. When asked if they were willing to pay higher taxes to help reach Net Zero targets, 58 per cent of British adults said they were not willing to do so, with only 34 per cent saying they were willing. Equally concerning for the Government is the broader economic context of rising inflation and in particular, energy bills. A total of 70 per cent of respondents said they were concerned about the financial impact of increased energy costs.
People rightly want to leave the environment in a better state, but this does not mean they support the finer detail of government policy. At present, while advocates of Net Zero point to its inclusion in the 2019 Conservative manifesto, the public are still being introduced to the idea that they may have to abandon their petrol cars and gas boilers, as well as reduce their meat consumption.
Many people resent these suggestions, and few feel that there has been much of a public conversation about what Net Zero should mean. Just 18 per cent of people we asked said that they felt the public had been given enough of a say, compared to 65 per cent who thought they hadn’t.
Environmental policies are quickly becoming a new dividing line within the post-Brexit political landscape. A letter from the new Net Zero Scrutiny Group of MPs made headlines for its demand that VAT and green levies should be scrapped from bills. These levies now cost in excess of £10 billion a year.
Removing these from consumers bills would be of most benefit to the poorest, in stark contrast to grants for EVs and air source heat pumps which overwhelmingly go to the rich. It is not surprising then, that just a fifth of people expected to benefit personally from grants for EVs and heat pumps in our survey, in comparison to the over 60 per cent of people who did not expect to benefit.
What is so frustrating is that people shouldn’t have to be paying to go green at all, because environmental objectives can be achieved while cutting costs for consumers at the same time. But they are already paying more because of badly designed policies.
The energy market is now privatised in name only, with the government having effective control over which generation technologies get built and how much consumers pay. They have chosen to promote dangerously unreliable wind and solar, while blocking domestic production of gas. The result is that consumers in the UK are facing some of the highest energy prices in the world.
Ultimately, lofty climate change targets will always be trumped by economic concerns in terms of the public’s priorities. If you are having to choose between heating and eating this winter, the emissions intensity of your electricity is likely to be a second order concern. Unless the government can deliver low energy prices for consumers and properly engage the public in a conversation about how Net Zero ought to be achieved, they will face a reckoning.