Britons would choose cheaper energy bills over climate action

Wide majority say cost of living is higher priority in poll for 'The National'

Britain plans to expand both wind power generation and oil and gas production offshore. AFP
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Britons would overwhelmingly choose lower energy costs over climate-friendly policies if the two come into conflict, a poll for The National has found.

The findings came as ministers put environmental concerns to one side to restart fracking and expand North Sea oil and gas production in response to the energy crisis enveloping Europe.

The Deltapoll survey for The National also revealed considerable discontent about global climate change policies, especially among the young people at the vanguard of the green movement.

But given a straight choice between lower bills and green initiatives, the cost of living crisis took priority: 71 per cent said cutting energy costs should be the focus, while 22 per cent chose climate change.

The two aims do not have to clash. Saving energy and using it more efficiently can cut both bills and carbon emissions. Experts would like to see better insulation of homes to meet both goals. Britain has plans for a. huge expansion of offshore wind energy by 2050, which should also serve both ends.

Politicians such as Alok Sharma, the president of the Cop26 climate summit, have sought to persuade voters that they should blame wholesale energy prices for their rising fuel bills — and not the pursuit of net-zero policies.

"The energy crisis should be an opportunity to scale up the production of renewables to guarantee a long-term, sustainable supply," said Joan Edwards, director of policy at British charity the Wildlife Trusts.

"In the long term, renewable energy production is better value for money, and has a critical role to play in helping us to reach net zero," she said.

However, the new government under Prime Minister Liz Truss has made clear that it will not be squeamish about exploiting Britain’s oil and gas reserves. Several new blocks of the UK's continental shelf are to be made available for drilling.

Other findings in the wide-ranging exclusive poll are:

The preference for lower energy bills was felt across Britain. This was the case in Scotland, Wales and even younger, more left-leaning London, where cheaper energy was favoured by a margin of 57 per cent to 30 per cent.

The poll was conducted shortly after Ms Truss announced a two-year freeze in energy bills, although attention was soon diverted by the death of Queen Elizabeth II that day.

It came amid darkening economic clouds after inflation rose to a 40-year high and economists raised fears of a recession in Britain.

“People overwhelmingly felt the top priority of the UK government should be lowering energy costs as opposed to tackling climate change,” Deltapoll’s polling report said.

Ministers appear to agree. More than 100 new North Sea drilling licences are expected to be handed out to oil and gas companies in a drive for more domestic production, it was announced this month, over activists’ objections.

Greenpeace threatened legal action against the North Sea expansion and accused the government of “pandering to outdated, fringe fossil fuel interests”.

But Business Secretary Jacob Rees-Mogg said: “The government remains committed to net zero by 2050, but we have to get there, and to get there we are going to need oil and gas.”

Mr Rees-Mogg also announced that a ban on shale gas fracking would be lifted after three years, despite the inconclusive findings of scientists on possible tremors caused by the drilling.

He combined his energy security argument with a climate-related one in a statement to MPs. He said fracking wells at home had "a lower climate impact than shipping liquefied natural gas by tankers halfway across the world”.

Chancellor of the Exchequer Kwasi Kwarteng said in March, when he was business secretary, that finding alternatives to imported fossil fuels was “no longer about tackling climate change or reaching net-zero targets”.

Asked about global climate change efforts, 48 per cent of Britons said the world was on the wrong track, while 29 per cent said it was on the right track and almost a quarter were unsure.

The generational gap was noticeable on this point. Some 62 per cent of under-25s said things were going wrong with global climate change efforts, with only 18 per cent satisfied. This reflected global concern from young people about the fate of the world they will inherit.

Over-65s were more evenly divided, with 34 per cent believing the world was on the right track and 41 per cent thinking things were awry.

Britain hosted the Cop26 summit last year and put considerable efforts into rallying other countries into taking action on climate change. However, watchdogs have faulted Britain’s own efforts at home.

Unlike EU countries such as Germany and France, Britain has not made major efforts to encourage the public to save energy this winter.

Asked how she would make the case for environmental protection to people who support more fossil fuel extraction, Ms Edwards said oil and gas markets were beyond the control of UK ministers.

The UK's moves to increase fossil fuel production and nuclear power generation are designed less with this winter’s bills in mind, and more to prevent Britain from being blackmailed by the likes of Russian President Vladimir Putin in future.

"None of these solutions can be delivered quickly ― even if processes are sped up, it will still take years for these developments to be built and begin producing energy," Ms Edwards said.

"We need to focus on a comprehensive 20-year national energy efficiency plan to help businesses and individuals reduce their energy use and improve energy efficiency.

"This summer we witnessed first-hand the impacts of climate change, with heatwaves and drought affecting the availability of water and devastating wild places and agricultural land. If we don’t adopt greener renewable energy now, the situation will worsen in decades to come."

Deltapoll interviewed 2,096 adults in Britain between September 9 and 12.

Updated: September 26, 2022, 10:32 AM