Voters think tackling climate change is vital—but only half are willing to pay for it

New research from Onward shows 50 per cent of the electorate would pay extra taxes to lower carbon emissions. There’s room for the government to go further on net zero

November 09, 2021
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Voters were less willing to pay for policies like the mandatory installation of heat pumps, where upfront costs fall on consumers. Image: Paul Glendell / Alamy Stock Photo

What would you be willing to pay higher taxes for? On most issues, people are particularly reticent about giving more money to the state. And while surveys show that voters are more supportive of higher tax and spend today than they have been for some time, they also suggest voters typically expect others—usually high earners or businesses—to be footing the bill.

It is therefore notable that half of voters would be willing to pay extra taxes if it led to lower carbon emissions being let into the atmosphere, according to new research for Onward.

Of course, this means that half of us wouldn’t be happy to pay extra, but 50 per cent of the electorate is a surprisingly high number of people willing to squeeze their living standards for the greater good. The proportion does not change significantly between political parties, age groups or other demographic markers, although graduates and high earners are considerably more self-sacrificing for the planet than those without degrees or on low incomes. 

This finding—and a similar result for the proportion of people willing to pay higher prices to tackle climate change (46 per cent)—underlines the extent to which climate change has gone from a relatively low priority issue a decade ago to an issue of broad consensus. Only health and the economy are now considered more important issues by voters. Meanwhile, the government’s own figures show that four-fifths of the population report being concerned about climate change, up 15 points since 2012. Our findings for Onward back this up: nearly seven in 10 (69 per cent) voters agree that “tackling climate change is one of the most important issues we face today.” 

Climate change is not just the concern of specific groups. Most people think it is one of the most important issues today, and while there is some political variation—Remain (77 per cent) and Labour (74 per cent) voters are more likely to agree than Leave (59 per cent) and Conservative (60 per cent) voters—every party’s electoral coalition is still in majority agreement that climate change is one of the most important issues we face today. A similar-sized majority of voters overall—and of every major party—agree that “the government is not being bold enough on its measures to tackle climate change.”

Evidently, the government has room to go further on net zero. Voters are keen for meaningful progress at COP26 this week: three-fifths (61 per cent) of people believe that “setting international targets is a good way to tackle climate change.” Last week’s agreements on reducing deforestation, methane and coal production in Glasgow are likely to have gone down well with the electorate.

Voters appear to see climate change, correctly, as a collective action problem, and believe that everyone must share the burden of tackling it. Nearly three in four voters (73 per cent) regard it to be “everyone’s responsibility, including all members of the public” to reduce emissions, not just the burden of the largest polluters. This may be one reason why half of us are prepared to pay higher taxes: it is an equitable way of sharing the costs. 

This was reinforced when we tested policies blind (without costs attached) against those fully costed. Some policies held up better than others when the price was revealed. For example housing policies, like requiring the installation of heat pumps and insulation, where upfront capital costs typically fall on consumers, saw support fall considerably. Meanwhile transport decarbonisation measures, like cheaper public transport and electric vehicle charging investment, which are typically funded by taxes, held up better. 

This suggests that voters are much more willing to stomach net zero policies supported by taxes than policies which force consumers to individually suck up the cost. Even a new tax on frequent flyers retained high levels of support when a cost of £44 per passenger per flight was revealed. 

Although the government does need to be careful in increasing voters’ bills at a time of sharply rising inflation, these findings indicate there are considerable opportunities yet to go further and faster along the road to net zero.