How much will you pay for Net Zero?

Posted in: Comment, New Publications

I've been reading The Conservation article by University of Bath, Cardiff University and  Cardiff University: Net zero: direct costs of climate policies aren’t a major barrier to public support, research reveals.

It begins in this way:

"Amid headlines of wildfires raging across Europe and Africa and flooding in China, the UK government took the bewildering choice to expand fossil fuel extraction.  Prime minister Rishi Sunak declared that more than 100 new oil and gas drilling licences would be granted for the North Sea in 2023, sparking widespread criticism and incredulity from climate experts, business leaders and some within his own party. The latest announcement follows other indications that the UK government is reviewing its climate commitments, spurred by a byelection victory that was won in part by opposing London’s ultra-low emission zone (Ulez).

Much of this backsliding relies on dubious logic: that the economic costs of green policies, and how they affect people’s lives, make them damaging for the UK and will always lose votes. As researchers who study public attitudes towards such policies, we are quite sure these arguments from the government don’t hold water.

First, inaction on climate change costs more than action, as established nearly two decades ago in the landmark Stern review. The economic case has only strengthened since, with this year’s Skidmore review making clear the considerable opportunities for the UK in a net zero transition, including the potential creation of almost half a million green jobs. Second, the government’s reluctance to intervene in people’s lives with climate policies does not reflect public opinion. There is actually UK-wide support for net zero policies – including those that would involve lifestyle changes. Crucially, the public wants and needs the government to show clear and consistent leadership on climate change."

Clear enough you might think, and the authors make it plain where they stand: "bewildering", "backsliding", "incredulity", although other reactions are available in the media should you like a bit of balance in this debate.  For example, an article in UnHerd arguing that the government is taking a more realist view of things.  The Telegraph and the Mail would likely be blunter.

But then we get to this:

"It’s true that support drops when people are asked to consider the costs of climate policies. For example, while 68% support the general idea of charging frequent flyers more for each additional flight they take in a year, when the financial costs to the individual are spelled out, support falls to 32% (and opposition rises from 16% to 33%).  This is perhaps no surprise. Previous research showed that even mentioning a very modest cost can make people less likely to support a policy, including climate measures.  On the other hand, emphasising the effectiveness or wider benefits of climate policies can increase support for them. One study conducted across 24 countries showed that highlighting additional benefits, such as cleaner air or stronger social cohesion, increased a person’s motivation to take action on climate change."

There's an otherworldliness about that paragraph.  Surely, it's “no surprise” and no "perhaps" either.  I suppose, generally speaking, that the less disposable income or savings you have, the less you are likely to support the idea of being made to spend obviously large (but often unquantified) sums on combatting climate change – not just through your taxes, but through personal savings.  What might be ok in the abstract rapidly becomes much less palatable in the concrete, even maybe, for those on typical professorial salaries.

I don't do this sort of public attitude research but it seems likely that if people are asked questions about climate change where explicit financial costs are made plain, the less money they have, the less keen they are likely to be on particular measures.  Asking such questions in a realistic way would seem to be a good idea given that what is being demanded of people is very far from abstract.  Just think of the huge costs of replacing gas and oil boilers with heat pumps in old housing stock, or having to scrap a perfectly reliable old car or pay what are significant daily fines.

Researchers take note.

Posted in: Comment, New Publications


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  • Excellent comments. It strikes me that all the political aspects of "sustainability' are predicated on maintaining some semblance of a failed system. Where are the discussions for a new system that promotes adaptation and ways to thrive. Alas, it seems the devil one knows versus the unknown is a major stumbling block.