In June 2019, the UK was the first major economy to set itself a legally-binding target to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050. A little more than three years later, 60% of the British public does not have confidence in the UK to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050, up from 53% in October last year. Just 27% currently say they do have confidence in the UK to hit the target.

Lack of confidence in the UK’s ability to address climate change appears to increase with age. 31% of 18-24 year olds and 39% of 25-34 year olds do have confidence in the UK to hit the 2050 target, compared to just 21% of 55-64 year olds and 18% of those aged 65+ who do.

But whilst the British public is largely united in their lack of confidence for the UK to hit its net zero target, opinion is divided over the practicality of the target itself, suggesting different sources of pessimism for voters. A plurality of Britons, 37%, think that the 2050 target is simply too ambitious. By contrast, a notable 28% believe that the 2050 target is in fact not ambitious enough, while a further 21% find the target to be ‘about right.’

As such, there may be voters who find the target to be reachable—in theory—but do not have confidence in the willingness of the country to undertake what is necessary to reach this target, while others simply lack confidence in the practicality of the net zero target itself.

Though opinion varies with age (37% of 18-24 year olds believe the target is not ambitious enough, compared to 23% of those aged 65+), political orientation is more relevant for this difference in opinion. A clear plurality (46%) of Conservative voters believe that the 2050 target is too ambitious, whereas, conversely, a plurality of Labour voters (36%) believe that the target is not ambitious enough.

Such differing views on the practicality of the 2050 target extend further to the broad questions of how the United Kingdom can reach net zero, particularly with regard to its capitalist system. Overall, 37% believe free markets and capitalism, because they encourage greed, cannot protect the planet, a figure which increases to almost half (49%) of those who voted Labour in 2019. 35% of all respondents, meanwhile, believe that free markets and capitalism, by encouraging innovation, can protect the planet, a figure which correspondingly includes almost half (47%) of those who voted Conservative in 2019.

However, at the individual level, the broader pessimism outlined above does lead to political convergence. For instance, 58% disagree that higher energy bills are a price worth paying to achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2050, including 62% of Conservative voters and 59% of Labour voters.

Similarly, 50% would oppose personally paying more in taxes to fund environmental initiatives, including 54% of Conservative voters and 50% of Labour voters. Britons are thus largely united in opposition to personally funding climate change initiatives, a reluctance that will likely only increase alongside the rising cost-of-living.

While there may be differing reasons for this personal reluctance, with one group seeing the problem as intractable while another group places the burden of addressing the problem primarily on institutions greater than the individual, such commonality at a personal level suggests that differing views on climate change may be unlikely to lead to significantly contrasting personal behavioural choices among different groups of voters. 

Indeed, a majority of 52% agree (of which 11% strongly agree) that they find it hard to tell whether the practices they adopt to live a more environmentally friendly lifestyle make any real difference. Voters in Britain do not believe that the measures they could take as an individual would have any tangible effect—the motivation to take personal responsibility for climate change simply isn’t there. And so, climate pessimism persists.

To find out more information about this research contact our research team. Redfield & Wilton Strategies is a member of the British Polling Council and abides by its rules. Follow us on Twitter

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