James Frayne is Director of Public First and author of Meet the People, a guide to moving public opinion.
This autumn’s global summit on the environment – COP26, to be held in Glasgow – will be many British voters’ first introduction to the politics of Net Zero.
When I’ve run focus groups on Net Zero, you might find one person in every three groups who has heard of it. While the environment is a tier one issue for many, the political and policy debates on Net Zero have passed the public by.
But it’s a huge issue that will define politics for two decades. COP26 therefore brings both opportunities and threats for this Conservative Government. I set out some thoughts on these here.
First, the opportunities…
1) The Government can promote green capitalism and green jobs
Boris Johnson is unusual: a centre right leader with a massive majority, who genuinely believes in the free market and protecting the environment. Rishi Sunak is similarly aligned.
As such, with the benefit of playing host, the Government has a chance to move green policy out of the hands of the left, where it has traditionally been held. The Government can chart a path to Net Zero compatible with centre-right politics: emphasising green jobs in a modernised economy and the role of technology in delivering clean growth.
This could be a distinctive role in global politics – particularly on the centre right – but could also help prevent the establishment of a policy link in the public mind between the environment and the hard left politics.
2) It offers an opportunity to do good
To date, Johnson’s Government has been defined by a few extremely divisive issues: Brexit and immigration, most obviously. This summit offers the chance to talk concretely about doing good – not just about protecting this country from the excesses of the weather, but protecting and promoting the environment globally. It also offers the first chance, post-Brexit, to work with international leaders on something positive.
3) It offers the chance to forge new alliances
Related to the above, the whole point of COP26 is to bring political leaders together. The Government has the chance to agree plans with other leaders, such as the US, that will strengthen ties in the same ways that security policy did in the past. After all, the US Democrats arguably now take climate change more seriously than foreign and defence policy. We should expect to see new alliances formed – and old alliances strengthened – over this issue.
(Covid should have facilitated global cooperation; the less said about this debacle the better).
4) Government could justify changes to the post-Covid tax system
Governments like to inject morality into the tax system. It allows them to create narratives that justify new or replacement taxes. This helps on different levels. Not only does it allow the Government to show it’s on the right side of public opinion, it provides a rationale to justify changes to the taxation system over many years.
There are fewer better opportunities than the one provided by COP26. when the Government will be able to craft a narrative that pollution should be paid for by higher taxes. When the country is struggling with massive debt post-Covid, this is a huge help. Net Zero is so large in scale, it seems likely the Government is going to have to shift to “taxing bad things to promote good” (watch out, alcoholic drinks firms).
Now, the threats…
5) There will be huge sticker shock
Successive Governments have been less than candid about the costs associated with Net Zero – both for the country as a whole and for individual families – and about lifestyle changes required. At COP26, all this will start coming out in the wash – and people are likely to be shocked about what they hear.
I have long believed the lack of any meaningful political opposition to Net Zero was a bad thing overall for the Government and the green movement: it has hidden all the negative stories that were going to come out at some point; and it has failed to get over the point that progress on Net Zero is good on balance.
Now people will hear the downsides – and it will look to many voters here that this Government’s policies are to blame. (“Why is Boris saying we need to pay more for x and y?”)
6) It will reveal huge political hypocrisy.
You can’t tell the public “we’re in a climate emergency” as you’re driving by in your diesel car. Sorry, you just can’t. As I wrote in the Sunday Telegraph, Alok Sharma, who’s leading on UK preparations for COP26, should replace his diesel car within a month, or drive it back to his new life in Reading West.
When politicians and policy experts are going to be telling us we’re in a climate emergency, and that everyone should face inconvenience and financial sacrifice, it’s imperative politicians are way ahead of the public in their own lives. It doesn’t look like most Government politicians are anywhere near. Allegations of hypocrisy will damage the Government’s green credentials, but could generally undermine trust in them too.
7) Lifestyle changes proposed will be vast, at the worst possible time
When COP26 is in full swing, the British economy will be struggling. While politicians are talking about future sacrifices, we might be hearing about the prospect of higher interest rates to curb inflation; the possibility of significant bill increases as the energy price cap moves; and about new taxes to pay off Covid debt. Talking about the need for additional green taxes will likely be met with a groan at best.
8) Many provincial towns depend on polluting industries
Derby returned a relatively rare Conservative MP at the last election (Derby North). Derby is one of the few cities in England that has kept a successful manufacturing base – making aero engines at Rolls-Royce, cars at Toyota, and trains at Bombardier. The corridor between Derby and Nottingham is full of SMEs who support these big manufacturers.
At COP26, the people of Derby will likely hear the need to radically tax flying and driving – and the businesses that make it possible. While people that live in these sorts of
towns are often realistic about the long-term prospects of manufacturing – and supportive of cleaner, greener, newer industries – at some point soon, the people of Derby will be asking some pointed questions of their MPs, just as they will across working-class seats around the country.
9) Lack of international agreement means many will ask: why bother?
As Paul wrote recently, there is at least a very good chance that emerging economies will drag their feet on environmental policy. They will likely argue that they’re still playing catch up with the developed West, and it’s not reasonable for the US, EU and UK to demand they slow their rate of growth when they’re only just establishing a mass middle class. And they have a point.
But the British public are already attuned to this problem; they know that Britain’s emissions are a relatively trivial amount of the global total. If one of their first introductions to Net Zero politics confirms their existing fears – that global progress isn’t viable, it’s possible more than a few will think “what’s the point?”
Which way will things go? How can the Government help to maximise the opportunities and mitigate the risks? I fear that the sticker shock borne of a lack of candour, coupled with stories of Ministerial inertia and hypocrisy in their private lives, will make for a difficult summit.
To give them a chance to get through this positively, the Government has got to start managing expectations fast – explaining that Net Zero is going to positive overall and on balance. This breezy assurance that it’s all going to be wonderful has got to end. And they’ve got to make sure that Government ministers can all, with a straight face, explain that they’re personally making the sacrifices they’re telling everyone else to make.