Ministers must tackle the climate crisis with the same urgency seen at the start of the Covid pandemic, according to in-depth research that also found widespread support for nationalisation and scepticism over the role of the private sector.
The Net Zero Diaries, a project run by the consultancy Britain Thinks to examine evolving attitudes to the pursuit of a net-zero emissions target, found support for strong-arm tactics from the government even among those who said they had low engagement with environmental issues.
“When the government wanted to be proactive with getting Covid deaths down … they took a proactive and committed [approach]. Who paid for it? The government,” one participant in the research observed.
Boris Johnson and the business secretary, Kwasi Kwarteng, are said to have been motivated by the pandemic to take a more radical approach towards net zero. A source close to the prime minister said both had reflected on the damage catastrophic events could wreak on the economy and used those arguments to make the case for greater safeguards against climate events.
The focus group project involved 40 people keeping diaries of news events and their everyday climate encounters, and hearing from a range of experts across the political spectrum. The research was commissioned by the energy company Ovo, Citizens Advice, WWF and Lancaster University, and diarists were recruited to reflect differing views on climate, from engaged activists to low-engagement regular consumers.
It found some sympathy with the aims of direct action groups such as Insulate Britain, but a widespread belief that civil disobedience would not work as a tactic.
Ahead of Cop26 next week, the project also found there was cynicism over what the summit in Glasgow will deliver and concern about the amount of emissions it would produce. Several respondents suggested there was an irony in gathering leaders from different corners of the world when many major conferences were successfully held online during the pandemic.
Diarists regularly came back to the idea of coordinated national action and saw nationalisation as the simplest way to achieve this. Labour in particular has faced controversy over Keir Starmer’s reluctance to back a previous pledge to nationalise energy companies.
“I like the idea of that personally, even though I know there were lots of problems with the nationalised companies we had in the old days,” one participant said.
Participants were asked to examine the most recent manifestos of the four main UK political parties, with the majority choosing the Scottish National party as being the most appealing, citing its focus on national companies and timeframes that seemed achievable.
The Green party’s was the second most popular, with Labour and the Conservatives joint bottom amid criticism of “platitudes” such as commitments to tree-planting and a distrust of nuclear energy.
The participants said they did not trust the private sector to drive a shift to net zero – a key plank of the government’s strategy, designed to incentivise companies to reorient their research and development towards cheaper green solutions.
Despite hearing from speakers who argued that private-sector innovation was crucial and that change could be driven by the free market, the participants said they roundly disagreed and argued companies would always maximise profits. Instead, participants said, regulation should be much tougher, and sanctions should be applied to companies unwilling to comply.
Yet there was a strong reluctance towards individuals bearing the brunt of the costs, defaulting towards a belief that big industry should be the first call for higher taxation.
There was also concern that the less well-off – or those in precarious jobs – will need support. “Unless there is a good retraining to send these people into green jobs, then they are heading for permanent unemployment, probably, as the Yorkshire coal miners did in the 80s. A generation of people not working, the poverty,” one participant said.
Most said they were reluctant to change their diet and underlined the high costs of changing their cars or energy supply. “We are naturally meat-eaters and changing that is not practical,” one said. “I keep wanting to trade in our diesel Kia Sportage for an e-vehicle, but the costs are astonishingly high and it would be £40,000+ to change,” said another. “Who can afford that?”
One diarist said they wanted to see the government install solar panels and energy-efficient boilers free of charge “if they are serious about becoming more energy-efficient”.
The participants were sceptical of campaigns that sought to highlight the “racist” aspects of the climate crisis and the effects on the developing world, as well as arguments about intergenerational fairness, and said their views were more shaped by current inequalities, citing the need to protect poorer citizens from fuel poverty and retrain people in green industries.
Participants will continue to keep their diaries for another two months and report back after the Cop26 summit.