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It’s not often these days that one thinks of Britain as having advantages over other developed countries, and less often still that those advantages stem from unity across a famously divided electorate, but for some time now support for the pursuit of net zero has been broader and deeper in the UK than any peer country. And it’s not just flimsy support for vague concepts, but for real policies, including those that would hit people in their wallets or otherwise impact their daily lives.
The current implementation of London’s ultra low emission zone has proved unpopular among many of the city’s drivers, but Britons are solidly in favour of the planned ban on the sale of new petrol and diesel cars from 2030 — something that cannot be said for the publics of France, Germany or the US. More striking still, support for this policy is higher among British Conservatives than even among the centre-left in France and Germany.
It’s a similar story with proposals to tax frequent flyers, or to triple investment in renewables. The British public overall is much more supportive than those of other wealthy western nations, and both Labour and Conservative voters rank among the greenest of all major parties’ backers.
This public support has been reflected in policy. Britain’s government was the first in the G7 to commit its net zero ambitions to law, and there were rapid rollouts of solar and wind, alongside the phasing out of coal.
Between stagnant wage growth and flatlining productivity, the 2010s are rightly considered a lost decade for Britain, yet amid the gloom was an under-appreciated success: in 2015, the UK installed as much renewable capacity as any peer country, and up until 2017 it decarbonised its economy at a faster rate than any peer country.
But the green boom fizzled out. First, in 2015 the Conservative government in effect banned new onshore wind farms when they sharply tightened planning restrictions in England. Between 2008 and 2014, at least 50 new wind farm applications were submitted each year, but that had plummeted to single digits by 2016, and has not recovered. Similarly, after the withdrawal of government support for solar, new applications fell from 488 in 2015 to just 10 two years later.
Despite solar and wind enjoying very strong public support at the time, both were casualties of David Cameron’s desire to “get rid of all the green crap”. This bid to bring down household energy bills had the opposite effect, with the resulting poorly insulated homes and over-reliance on gas adding £9.8bn to UK energy bills over the past year. Today Rishi Sunak is making the same mistake, only the stakes are higher and the outcome may well be worse for all involved, starting with his party.
Thirty per cent of current Conservative supporters say that if Sunak waters down the net zero targets it would put them off voting Tory at next year’s election. The environment is simply a much bigger issue for voters in 2023 than it was in 2013, and former Tory voters are disproportionately more likely to say they’ll switch to Labour if they think the government is not doing enough on climate. Being seen as lackadaisical on global warming also risks exacerbating the party’s problem with millennials.
But, more important, making green policies into a wedge issue will apply a brake just at the point when the UK’s energy transition is most in need of thrust. The construction of a huge offshore wind farm that could increase Britain’s electricity generation by three per cent has been put on pause. Britain had only 2.5 heat pump sales per 1,000 households last year, fewer than all major European countries and far behind the target of 21 installations per 1,000 by 2028. Government-funded energy efficiency installations fell to a record low.
Solving these problems requires green ambition, but it will pay dividends for energy security, household budgets and economic growth as well as the planet. It would be wrong to interpret a close by-election result and one poorly designed policy as Britons cooling on net zero. The British public — including Conservative voters — is fully behind ambitious green growth. Confident parties and leaders would channel those sentiments, not undermine them.