Public concern over climate change doubles, despite UK government's net-zero doubts

A quarter of people surveyed in poll said the environment is among most important issues facing the country

Artwork on New Brighton Beach, north-west England, ahead of Cop26 in 2021. UK concern over the environment is at its highest since the UN climate summit, a poll has found. Getty Images
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Concern about climate change has jumped in the UK, despite a “run of negativity” towards net-zero policies, a survey published on Wednesday found.

One in four people in Britain now see the environment as among the most important issues – twice as many as a month ago and the highest level since the 2021 Cop26 summit in Glasgow, according to the poll by market research company Ipsos.

This comes as extreme temperatures, wildfires and ocean warming have made headlines around the world in recent weeks.

The increase in concern is despite Britain’s governing Conservative Party warning that pursuing net-zero policies could damage investment in Britain.

The Tories have sought to draw battle lines for a 2024 general election by expanding North Sea oil and gas drilling and criticising low-emission traffic policies.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, who has positioned himself as a friend of the motorist, has said Britain is still committed to reaching net zero by 2050, but would do so in a “proportionate and pragmatic way”.

Emma Pinchbeck, the chief executive of Energy UK, the trade association for the energy industry, said ministers should be “out beating the drum” to attract green investment.

She told an event hosted by the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit, a non-profit organisation conducting research and analysis on energy and climate issues, that politicians “really underestimate how fast money moves” in response to market signals.

“We’ve had a bit of a run of negativity from the UK, some bits of the UK press and bits of the government, about whether net zero is worth it,” she said.

“What industry hears when they hear that is ‘we’re not clear about the long-term investment’.”

She said climate-friendly government messaging was a way to attract investment when ministers cannot simply “throw loads of money at the problem”.

“[If] I was government, I’d be out beating the drum for clean energy technologies and being as positive as I possibly could, because that in itself will often secure investment into your country,” she said.

Concern about the environment now ranks joint third with the National Health Service and behind the economy and inflation, according to the Ipsos survey.

It showed 25 per cent saw the environment as an important issue, up by 13 per cent in a month.

Climate change around the world – in pictures

“News reports about wildfires and extreme temperatures disrupting holidays are a likely cause” of the jump, Mike Clemence, a researcher at Ipsos, said.

“Elsewhere we see a small rise in concern about immigration, with worry strongly centred among Conservative party supporters and older people.

"However, economic issues continue to lead public concern, with worry about the state of the economy rising this month, particularly for Labour party supporters and the middle classes.”

The Labour Party opposition, which leads in the polls, has accused Mr Sunak of failing to invest in renewables, in what Labour leader Keir Starmer called a gift to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

However, the Conservatives seized on a surprise London by-election win last month – widely attributed to an unpopular Labour-backed low emission zone – to court support from people worried about the costs of net zero.

Ministers have also accused Labour of being in league with Just Stop Oil climate activists who have blocked roads and staged a series of provocative stunts.

For its August 2023 Ipsos Issues Index, the company interviewed 1,004 adults between August 2 and August 7.

Updated: August 16, 2023, 10:55 AM