Politicians would do well to bear in mind that the public’s support for green measures cannot be taken for granted indefinitely, says Matthew Farrow.
It has been noticeable over the past year that on the rare occasions when Boris Johnson has not been talking about the pandemic, he has usually been making a pronouncement on tackling climate change. The net zero ten-point plan, the G7 commitments to phase out coal, the adoption of the Sixth Carbon Budget – just a few of the glad tidings the PM has been keen to share with us.
I’m sure No 10 has calculated that the environment is the sort of malleable issue that can be stretched and purposed to appeal to three key groups that the Conservatives need to keep, or bring, onside. First of all, young voters, where the party must improve its dismal ratings to preserve its long-term strength. Secondly, red wall voters where the pitch is the new manufacturing jobs that the ‘green industrial revolution’ will generate. Lastly, traditional Conservative votes in the southern heartlands, where the message is about protecting the green belt and improving habitats and biodiversity.
As political strategies go this is all reasonable stuff, but as the Amersham by election has shown, the strategy is easier to articulate than it is to pull off. In areas like Amersham, the big picture boldness of the government’s high-level green policies is of little interest compared to fears that the local picture will be one of unwanted housing development and HS2 construction and tunnelling works.
In the red wall seats meanwhile, the question will be whether the good quality manufacturing jobs in new green technologies such as electric vehicles, carbon capture and storage and offshore wind, materialise in the numbers and in the places where they are most needed. It’s certainly possible, but whenever I hear politicians using the green jobs mantra to square difficult circles, I’m reminded of Adair Turner’s quote, “All we can safely say about green jobs is that there are as many jobs in a low carbon economy as in a high carbon one.”
While we don’t need to worry that decarbonisation will reduce long-term aggregate employment levels, it’s very hard to predict with any confidence how the transition will affect particular regional labour markets and particular demographics. Ministers can always try to steer the job creation in green industries towards deserving groups – a factory grant here, a regulatory tweak there – but the risk is that resulting market distortions may make the already extremely challenging task of net zero even more of an uphill struggle.
There’s always been a suspicion that Boris’s environmental enthusiasm has been a flag of convenience. Despite this, I do think that the ambition around net zero has developed a level of momentum that is here to stay. The combination of a legal framework with regular milestones, the growing investor focus on futureproofing investments for a low carbon future, plus the media and political focus around COP26, means that it will be hard for the government to suddenly change course.
A bigger threat to net zero is probably voter concern. As the recent Swiss vote rejecting stronger climate regulations shows, the public’s support for green measures cannot be taken for granted.
Matthew Farrow is director of policy at the Environmental Industries Commission (EIC). This blog originally appeared as a comment piece in Infrastructure Intelligence.
Image: No10 Flickr