Half of Britons Say Paris Climate Agreement is ‘Meaningful’ While a Fifth Say it is ‘Meaningless’

May 21, 2021
R&WS Research Team
Climate Change | Environment
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The first-ever international summit on the environment occurred in Stockholm in 1972, beginning a series of United Nations environmental conferences that now take place annually under the name Conference of Parties (COP). In recent years, the most momentous meeting of the Conference of Parties took place in Paris at COP21, where the ‘landmark’ Paris Agreement was signed by 196 countries. Research conducted by Redfield & Wilton Strategies shows that the majority (59%) of British respondents have heard of the Paris Climate Agreement. However, 74% of Britons have not heard of the upcoming COP26 meeting taking place in Glasgow this November, only a small decrease from 80% a month ago. 

Among respondents who have heard of the Paris Climate Agreement, three-quarters (76%) approve of the UK being a signatory to the Paris Climate Agreement, with just 5% disapproving. Approval is high across age groups, peaking at 81% of 55-to-64-year-olds. Moreover, the UK being a signatory enjoys bipartisan support: 71% of 2019 Conservative voters and 80% of 2019 Labour voters who are familiar with the Paris Climate Agreement approve of the UK being a signatory.   

One reason for this approval is a broad, public understanding of the international dimension of environmental issues. The majority (64%) of Britons polled say they believe all countries have an equal responsibility to reduce their global greenhouse gas emissions, rather than some countries having a particular responsibility (19%) or no countries having a responsibility (5%).

The main goal set by the Paris Agreement is to keep the rise in global average temperature to ‘well below’ 2°C above pre-industrial levels, which will require significant reductions in global greenhouse gas emissions. Britons are divided on whether or not this target is realistic: 34% believe it is unlikely and 30% believe it is likely that the goal of keeping the rise in global average temperature below 2°C will be met, while a further 28% think it is neither likely nor unlikely. 

Younger respondents are considerably more optimistic that the Paris Climate Agreement target can be met: a plurality of 18-to-24-year-olds (42%) and 25-to-34-year-olds (43%) say it is likely that the rise in global average temperature will be kept well below 2°C. By contrast, a plurality of respondents aged 45 to 54 (39%), 55 to 64 (47%), and 65 or over (42%) say the goal is unlikely to be met. It therefore appears that the respondents who are the most likely to witness the potentially severe consequences of climate change in the future are the most hopeful that the threat can be mitigated. 

Although reports have shown how global warming between 1.5°C to 2°C would adversely impact the world, it remains to be seen whether these changes will make Earth uninhabitable, a prospect which the British public is unsure about: 37% of respondents say they think the Earth will not become uninhabitable for humans if the global average temperature does rise to 2°C above pre-industrial levels, though an equal 37% say they don’t know. 27% conversely say that such a temperature rise will make Earth uninhabitable for humans, a figure which rises to 35% for 18-to-24-year-olds and 34% for 25-to-34-year-olds. 

Therefore, while a third of Britons believe it is unlikely that global warming will be kept well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels, more than a third also believe such an outcome would not make Earth unliveable—though this belief does not preclude also believing the effects would nevertheless be harmful. Indeed, half (52%) of respondents say the Paris Climate Agreement is meaningful, including 51% of 2019 Conservative voters and 55% of 2019 Labour voters. Meanwhile, a fifth (21%) say the Paris Climate Agreement is meaningless, and 28% say they don’t know.

One reason that has led some to argue that the Paris Climate Agreement is meaningless is that it does not have a mechanism that makes it binding for signatories to meet the targets set. The treaty instead works through a ‘name and shame’ system, whereby countries must admit when they set low targets or fail to meet their targets, prompting international ‘shaming.’ 

However, the British public appears to deem this system effective: a plurality (42%) say that the Paris Agreement’s ‘name and shame’ system is likely to bring about genuine change, an outcome which a quarter alternatively believes is unlikely (25%) or neither likely nor unlikely (24%). 

Younger respondents are again the most likely to express optimism, with 60% of 18-to-24-year-olds and 55% of 25-to-34-year-olds saying the ‘name and shame’ system is likely to bring about genuine change. Further, while we see considerable bipartisan agreement on many questions relating to the Paris Climate Agreement, a greater proportion of 2019 Labour voters (50%) than 2019 Conservative voters (38%) believe the ‘name and shame’ system is likely to bring about genuine change. 

It may also be that many are hopeful that this system will work because they are unwilling to contemplate alternative means of enforcing compliance. When prompted with a statement suggesting that military action should be considered against countries that show no effort to reduce emissions or pollution, nearly half of respondents (45%) disagreed. A considerable quarter (27%) nevertheless agreed. 

Roughly six months ahead of COP26 in Glasgow, the British public appears largely supportive of international environmental agreements like the Paris Climate Agreement, even though the large majority of Britons have not heard of the upcoming COP26 meeting. A majority of those who have heard of the Paris Agreement support the UK being a signatory of it, and half of the British public at large believes the Agreement is meaningful. Many believe the system it implements is likely to bring about genuine change, though the public is split on whether the Agreement’s goal of limiting global warming to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels will ultimately be achieved.

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.

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