On my mind: Culture wars, carbon pricing, car-free cities
I often use Twitter as a way to record thoughts or flag interesting climate developments. But, inspired by Ed King's excellent digest on climate diplomacy updates, and encouraged by anecdotal appetite for something similar focussed on the UK, I thought I'd put together an occasional note that goes beyond 280 characters and tries to connect the dots between what's going on here in the run up to COP26.
Here are a few things - culture war, carbon pricing and car-free cities - that are front of mind for me at the minute.
Is the climate movement stoking a culture war that doesn't (yet) exist?
'Boris Johnson is only pursuing Net Zero to detoxify himself amongst liberal-minded and younger voters' is an oft-repeated trope. This ignores: a) that he went into the last election with a 7 point lead on environmental issues; and b) Leave-voting Tories are worried about climate, just like Remain-voting Labour supporters. It's becoming tiresome how often climate gets presented as a frontier in a partisan culture war when all the data reveals a staggering level of consensus across all ages, geographies and political affiliations.
Britain Talks Climate, a collaboration between Climate Outreach and ECF, shows the Leaviest segment, which also has the highest number of Labour-Tory swing voters, are amongst the most climate concerned. Loyal Nationals, as they’re dubbed, are also slightly more concentrated in Red Wall seats, where - as Centre for Town’s new report details - the salience of green issues has risen in line with everywhere else. So why don't we hear their voice in the climate movement?
Similarly, although the youth movement injected much needed urgency and energy into the climate debate at a critical time, many now see climate as a top priority only among the young, urban left – a mistake repeated by David Runciman in his recent Talking Politics podcast (see Leo Barasi’s challenge on Twitter). With policy-makers obsessed by the grey vote, it is a bit worrying if the green agenda starts to be seen primarily as a young person's issue.
The climate movement is at least partly responsible for creating and perpetuating the misconception in Westminster that climate is of disproportionate concern to Remain-voting, left-leaning, more affluent and younger Southerners. We are not going to achieve the sweeping changes needed without the consent and participation of a broader swathe of the public, to play a game of addition rather than subtraction. We won’t develop that kind of engagement unless we start from where people are rather than simply where the Committee on Climate Change tells us we need to get to. It's striking, for example, that whilst most people support action on climate change, when you ask them what comes to mind when they think of the issue they mention recycling or plastic bags. Around half the public don't know that heating their home is one of the biggest contributors to our carbon footprint.
I don’t think I’m being too hyperbolic in suggesting that, unless we change our approach to put much greater emphasis on citizen engagement on the choices involved, we could yet see the net zero target suffer the same fate as the aid target, explored by Peter Franklin in his provocative blog. “By failing to embed support for the [0.7%] target in the wider population, they made it easy for politicians to knock it back down”, he wrote, noting that “the case for aid should have been patriotic, not preachy”.
As Rachel Wolf put it in relation to net zero:
"The public have no idea what it [the net zero target] really means, or how it might change their life. They frequently mix it up with other government commitments like plastics. They care about the environment, but no one has begun to explain the changes in their lifestyle that might be required to reach net zero in the next 30 years. They already think they pay a lot of tax, and are currently unprepared to pay lots more for the environment. Unless we get this right – and develop solutions that can mitigate the cost – the situation is ripe for a new UKIP-style party to whip up hostility (as the gilets jaunes in France show)."
Does Rishi's carbon pricing plan risk doing just that?
Given these risks, it's alarming that reports Rishi Sunak is about to vastly expand carbon pricing in Britain are not attracting more attention and scrutiny. (We don’t need reminding that Macron's carbon taxes prompted riots in France or that similar measures toppled Kevin Rudd’s government in Australia.)
The government's Energy White Paper, out just before Christmas, suggested two thirds of UK emissions not covered by the existing scheme could soon be subject to carbon pricing. Rumours suggest a government announcement fairly imminently.
Research elsewhere in Europe considered the distributional impact of extending carbon taxes to things like heating and driving, and found it would be both harmful and ineffective. This is unsurprising, perhaps, given that electric heating and cars are still currently too expensive for most people, including leading climate activists. Without new targeted policies and investments to bring down their costs and make alternatives to gas boilers and diesel cars accessible, desirable and affordable, whacking up fuel bills in the absence of a wider package of measures, is not the smartest idea.
That said, the idea finds influential supporters and, ultimately, the Treasury needs to raise revenues given its recent spending spree. If taxes must be raised, the logic goes that they might as well target unpopular stuff like pollution. How Ministers avoid this becoming another fuel duty type row (but on steroids) will certainly require imaginative thinking into how to best support families and industry in making the shift.
How seriously should we be taking the controversy over car-free zones in cities?
Challenges over fairness, trust, and perceived loss of control are already alive in the debate over restrictions on driving in cities.
Britain's foremost clean air campaigner, Rosamund Kissi-Debrah, has argued Low Traffic Neighbourhoods (LTNs) are unfair. “For people who live in an LTN, yes, life is better, I don’t deny that,” she says. “But their traffic is going somewhere. And this brings up all sorts of issues: social justice and environmental justice. You cannot live in a neighbourhood where one part has an LTN and children are cycling and playing outside and the roads are safe, then pop along a couple of roads later and there’s gridlocked traffic. We cannot live in a society like that.”
Research by Possible suggests the distributional impact of these schemes within London is actually pretty even and, on that basis, The Guardian says council leaders and mayors should hold their nerve. Greenpeace says LTNs limit traffic at a time when there are legitimate fears over using public transport, and points to polls showing majority support.
Whether a particular LTN actually works or not – i.e. traffic reduced rather than being simply displaced - it does seem to be the case that councils had to rush the schemes through to make use of time-limited government funding, and that this led to a consult-as-you-go approach in some areas. (Even sympathetic pundits like Janice Turner say there should be much more consultation on how to make them work better.) And the fact remains: some people don’t feel that they’re fair and this is giving ammunition to Nigel Farage ahead of the forthcoming local elections.
With some councils beginning to wobble on their clean air efforts in the face of concerted campaigns, some backed by the diesel lobby, alongside spontaneous and even violent backlash from motorists, how can we make sure the green shift in cities continues to enjoy enough public and political support? Keen to hear your ideas.