In September 2023, the British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak delivered a speech to set out a “new approach to net zero”, in which the argument for watering down climate policies was framed around the need to address issues of equity and fairness. For example, in announcing the decision to push back the date by which no new fossil fuelled cars can be sold, from 2030 to 2035, the Prime Minister argued that the Government was moving away from a “default” approach that would “impose unacceptable costs on hard-pressed families”. This framing relies on the assumption that climate policies will inevitably be expensive, draconian and thus unpopular, particularly for those on lower incomes. However, the evidence suggests that in the UK this is not the case.

Which parts of society will climate impacts and climate action affect the most?

There is strong and well-established evidence that the costs of not acting on climate change far outweigh the costs of transitioning to net zero. Furthermore, the impacts of climate change will certainly be unfair: the poorest and most marginalised groups in society often face higher exposure to climate impacts. For instance, struggling households are more exposed to food price shocks which can be brought about by extreme weather events.

Similarly, lack of action on energy efficiency would continue to leave lower income households living in poorly insulated properties exposed to costly heating and electricity bills dependent on volatile gas prices. Tenants renting from private landlords are particularly affected, while those in social housing generally benefit from higher standards of energy efficiency.

The economic arguments for ambitious climate policy were strengthened in the 2023 Independent Review of Net Zero (the Skidmore review), which highlighted the significant employment opportunities and potential for export revenues associated with net zero innovation. Recent analysis by CBI Economics showed that whereas the UK economy as a whole is struggling with low growth, net zero economic activity grew by 9% in 2023.

How concerned about climate change are different income groups?

Support for net zero policies is widespread across the British public, and three in four adults say they already make some or a lot of lifestyle changes to help tackle climate change. Opinion polls have shown that public concern and support for action remained high during the COVID-19 pandemic and the cost of living crisis.

In other research on the UK, in all income groups the majority of people (between 67% and 74%, depending on income bracket) were found to agree that climate change requires a high or extremely high level of urgency of response. Higher income groups showed slightly stronger levels of concern, but not to a statistically significant extent. Political affiliation is a more significant predictor of perceived urgency than many other social and demographic variables, suggesting that political spin is generating division around climate policy. To build consensus support for action on climate change requires countering ideology-driven narratives and information not backed by science or evidence.

What factors underpin public support for climate policy?

Fairness and choice are of vital importance to the British public when it comes to climate action. The UK Climate Assembly, convened in 2019–20, emphasised these as core principles, and evidence from workshops confirms that public support for net zero policies such as reducing car use rests on the need for personal choice, fairness and trust in those implementing the policies. But fairness can mean different things to different people and narrative framing matters in building and maintaining public support for climate policies. For instance, while 68% support proposals for a frequent flyer levy, support falls to just 32% when information is provided about the cost implications for individuals. Conversely, emphasising the effectiveness and the multiple benefits that climate policies can deliver to individuals and communities, such as health and air quality improvements, improved community spirit and job creation, can boost support: it is a question of providing the evidence that action on climate will help limit the unequal impacts of climate change and could play a pivotal role in supporting more vulnerable households.

This Explainer was written by Sam Hampton, Oxford University and Lorraine Whitmarsh and Hettie Moorcroft, University of Bath, with support from Caterina Brandmayr and Georgina Kyriacou.

UK myth-busting series: This Explainer was produced as part of a UK-focused ‘myth-busting’ project between the LSE and Imperial College London Grantham Institutes. The series of 10 Explainers will be published as a single volume later in spring 2024. The project is designed to deepen understanding of climate change action among current and prospective decision-makers, the policy community and the public in the UK in the run-up to the 2024 General Election. See ‘Related pages’ to the right for further Explainers in this series.

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