Divided public means climate change risks becoming ‘wedge issue’, poll suggests

Action on climate change could become a “wedge issue” at the next election – despite four in 10 saying they back stronger action on net zero, a new poll has suggested.

Some 41% of people told a poll carried out by Ipsos UK for King’s College London that they would vote for a party promising strong action on climate, but 33% said they would support one promising to slow down efforts against global warming.

The figures, published on Monday, come as the UK heads into an election year at which climate change and net zero could play a significant role.

Professor Bobby Duffy, director of KCL’s Policy Institute, said: “The public’s top priorities going into an election year are the typical core concerns of the NHS and economy – but this doesn’t mean climate change won’t play a key role.

“Nearly half the population think it’s one of the most important issues facing the country and, perhaps more importantly in the context of an election campaign, there are very strong views on either side – it has the potential to be an important wedge issue.

Net zero targets
Rishi Sunak rowed back on a number of key net zero commitments in September 2023. (Justin Tallis/PA)

“Four in 10 say they’d be more likely to vote for party taking strong action, but a third say they’d be more likely to vote for a party that slows down on climate action.

“This presents a risk of divides being emphasised and encouraged during the campaign on an issue where we need people to come together, and, as the public recognise, where backtracking presents a risk to the UK’s international reputation.”

The poll comes three months after Rishi Sunak watered down a number of net zero policies, claiming they were unaffordable and risked alienating public opinion.

The KCL poll found the public divided on whether the Prime Minister had made the right decision, with 46% saying he had and 35% saying he had not.

Although 2019 Conservative voters were much more likely to say Mr Sunak had made the right decision, those who had since stopped supporting the party were twice as likely to see he had got it wrong as those who still backed the Tories.

Kier Starmer visit to Humberside
Sir Keir Starmer has made Labour’s ‘Green Prosperity Plan’ a central part of his party’s pitch for the next election, when climate change could be a key issue. (Stefan Rousseau/PA)

More than half of those who had switched to Labour since 2019 said they thought the Prime Minister had made the wrong decision.

Some 40% also said Mr Sunak’s changes had harmed Britain’s international reputation, while only 13% thought they had improved the country’s image abroad.

Chris Skidmore, the Conservative MP and net zero tsar, urged greater efforts to sell net zero to the public.

He said: “This new data demonstrates that the public support action on climate change and will support a party that commits to action and doesn’t row back on delivering cheaper and greener energy.

“It is also telling that four in 10 people think the UK’s international standing has been damaged, after the government’s decision to approve new gas and oil.

“The Net Zero Review demonstrated that net zero is an opportunity to create hundreds of thousands of new jobs, bring billions of pounds of inward investment to the UK, and to regenerate industrial communities.

“But these key positive benefits need to be told to the public, just as they are with the Inflation Reduction Act in the US. We need a net zero engagement strategy to help inform the public about what net zero means and how it will make their lives better, and leave them richer and warmer with better housing, heating and more money to spend.”