What Boris Johnson Can Learn from Britain's Greens
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- When U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson told President Biden's Earth Day summit that protecting the environment was not “some expensive, politically correct, green act of bunny hugging,” supporters laughed, opponents were outraged and Greta Thunberg changed her Twitter bio to “Bunny Hugger.”
But Johnson hit on an important fact, the significance of which it’s not clear even he realizes: British support for all things green has become both broad and deep. In other words, there is no excuse not to enact policies that help Britain meet its ambitious net zero goal. And given the steep path to achieving that goal laid out by the International Energy Agency in its new net zero report, the prime minister can’t afford to delay the implementing policies.
Backing for environmental measures from Conservative voters and lawmakers isn't a new phenomenon, though it is at odds with what many conservatives in the U.S. think. But recently support for policies to reduce carbon emissions has gone far further than we’ve seen in the past.
A recent multi-country study by the United Nations Development Program and Oxford University show the U.K. tied for first among 50 countries for the proportion of their populations believing in a climate emergency. Media attention on the environment has also increased considerably, including green campaigns from newspapers not noted for making common cause with environmentalists, such as the tabloid Sun.
In a March poll from my polling company, Number Cruncher, as many as five in six U.K. adults (83%) said addressing climate change was "very" or "fairly" important to them personally, and that result is consistent across every demographic, geographic and ideological segment. Similarly, 80% felt the U.K. playing a leading role in environmental matters was important to them personally, while 75% said the same about politicians prioritizing the environment.
Where does enthusiasm lead politically? While the U.K.'s Green parties (each of the U.K.’s four nations has its own) haven’t made the kind of breakthrough that some of their counterparts elsewhere in Europe have achieved — unsurprisingly given the U.K.'s winner-takes-all electoral system — they have been polling well ahead of the 3% achieved at the 2019 election. And in the recent local elections, the Greens reached well outside their traditional areas of strength in big cities and southern university towns, making gains in rural Derbyshire and Northumberland, and the Lancashire town of Burnley — better known for its past support of the far right than the liberal left.
This direct electoral threat to Labour from the Greens is well known, but now it's also got the attention of some in Johnson's Conservative Party. What's more, for both major parties, the politics is increasingly aligned with the science. The Conservatives have struggled with graduates and younger voters, who strongly opposed Brexit. While they won't forget Brexit in a hurry, making common cause with them on climate change can't hurt.
The Labour Party, meanwhile, needs to square the circle between its progressive base and the traditional voters it has been losing, notably in places like Hartlepool, which just voted in a Conservative MP. Pro-environment policies and words present a rare opportunity to please the former without antagonizing the latter.
The public mood has already had an impact on behavior and policy. The share of the U.K.'s electricity production accounted for by renewables has continued to increase dramatically to 42% in 2020 from 3% at the turn of the century. In March, Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak unveiled plans for a “green investment bank” and Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng, speaking of “lifestyle changes,” says that he might go vegan.
The election results, and our surveys, suggest that Johnson has political room to press for the difficult trade-offs — from electric vehicles to low-carbon heating — required to make the net zero commitment (currently by 2050) realistic. Almost three-quarters of Brits (73%) think that green credentials are at least as important as cost when choosing goods and services. Brits are now about as likely to prioritize environmental impact as price (26% to 23%). The vast majority of those in our poll who said switching to clean energy was important to them also indicated they are largely open to paying for it.
Moreover, there was little difference between the U.K. as a whole and crucial but often mischaracterized “Red Wall” seats that the Conservatives gained from Labour in 2019 and did well again in the recent local elections. And the broader the support, the more effective carbon reduction policies will be.
As the government reveals policies to reach the net-zero target in the coming months ahead of the COP26 summit, it should have the courage of the public’s conviction. Environmental support is indeed broader than the “bunny huggers.” Now Johnson needs to leverage that support for policies that help him meet the ambitious goals that Britain has set.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Matt Singh runs Number Cruncher Politics, a nonpartisan polling and elections site that predicted the 2015 U.K. election polling failure.
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