Consensus at home is just as important as consensus abroad to meet our climate targets

By Charles Seaford

With COP26 about to commence, the Government is on a mission to try and build consensus internationally in order to tackle the climate emergency globally. But the Government also has another task on its hands – it  shouldn’t forget that building consensus at home is crucial to meeting the UK’s climate targets and achieving its Nationally Defined Contribution (NDC) – the contribution each country will make to achieving global climate goals. 

A couple of weeks ago we published The Climate Consensus – a report setting out the public’s preferred path to the Government’s 2030 climate target and its NDC, based on the largest ever analysis of climate public opinion. A nationally representative sample of 20,000 used an online tool – www.climatecalculator.co.uk – which allowed them to see the impact of policies on emissions as well as on household costs, jobs and health. Last week, the Government set out its Net Zero Strategy, aiming to guide the transformation of the UK economy over the next 30 years. So how does the public’s chosen plan compare with the Government’s plan?

The bottom line is that the public is up for more ambitious change than the Government is proposing in three areas: how we heat our homes, flights, and meat and dairy consumption. The public’s policy package would more than hit the government’s 2030 target – a 42% reduction against 2019 levels as compared with the target of 39% – whereas it is very difficult to see how the Government’s programme will get us to its target, especially as there is a lot that isn’t quantified in the Net Zero Strategy. 

The most important difference is on heating. 77% of the public want to see the following policy implemented: 

A very ambitious approach to heating and electricity, made possible by government playing an active role. The government increases its 2030 target to 1.4m heat pumps installed in existing homes each year, with 770,000 to be insulated. It takes an active role to ensure sufficient supply of heat pumps and insulation to households, that these create UK jobs, and that costs are minimised. It provides a grant to cover some of the additional costs and it introduces a government-backed loan scheme at low interest rates to cover the rest, with homeowners paying these back from their energy bill savings. Low-income households receive grants to cover the total cost. The government also sets more ambitious targets for wind and solar electricity generation.

The Government is adopting an impressively ambitious approach to electricity – and intends to almost entirely decarbonise power generation by 2035. However, it is adopting a much less ambitious approach to heating, at least in the next seven years. Most notably, it’s only targeting 400,000 heat pumps to be installed in existing homes each year by 2028, with another 200,000 in new builds. However, the public’s preferred policy of 1.4m installations by 2030 involves 1.1m installations in existing homes in 2028, in line with the supply constraints identified in work done for the Climate Change Committee. Our estimate is that the Government’s lower level of ambition could lower the overall level of emissions reductions from the public’s 42% to around 35% or 36%. 

The Government may have a good reason for this: it is hedging its bets on heat pumps and hydrogen. It is possible that hydrogen will turn out to be a cost effective replacement for natural gas, with no emissions when it is burnt. No decision on this will be made until 2026. We don’t yet know what the chances are of hydrogen turning out cheaper than heat pumps (assuming that there are no significant emissions associated with its production). However, we do know that the five year delay to the strategic decision will make it very difficult for the Government to achieve its 2030 target in a way that is acceptable to the public. 

As well as heating, the public is also up for demand side measures in two areas that the Government has shied away from: flights and meat and dairy consumption. On flights, 89% of the public support higher costs for travellers, with about two thirds of these supporters preferring a frequent flier levy that rises depending on the number of flights taken in a year. However in this week’s Budget, the Chancellor actually reduced Air Passenger Duty on domestic flights.

On meat and dairy, 93% favour a strong campaign run by supermarkets, food companies and government designed to produce a 10% reduction in consumption – although a tax on meat and dairy was much less popular, even if the proceeds were used to subsidise other forms of food. The Net Zero Strategy contains nothing in either area, reducing the overall level of emissions reductions by a further 2 to 3%.

We are not saying that the Government cannot achieve its target based on the Net Zero Strategy – for example, the Government may be ahead of the public on carbon pricing of industrial emissions, and this could make a significant difference. There may also be technological breakthroughs that our model didn’t take into account. There is much in the strategy that is both ambitious and well thought through. But the lack of ambition relative to that of the public in the three areas described will make this a great deal more challenging.

Read our findings in The Climate Consensus here.