UK support grows for a green Covid-19 exit

More Britons now favour a green Covid-19 exit policy focused on the environment rather than one putting the economy first.

Empty shelves in a British supermarket
Empty shelves in a British supermarket amid the coronavirus pandemic. A recent opinion poll has found clear support for putting the environment at the heart of the post-outbreak economy recovery from across the United Kingdom. Image: Wesley Tingey, CC BY-SA 2.0

What will the United Kingdom need in order to rebuild after the pandemic: policies that concentrate on strengthening the economy, or that give priority to the environment with a green Covid-19 exit instead?

A recent opinion poll has found clear support for putting the environment at the heart of the post-Covid-19 economy recovery from across the UK.

YouGov, the British market research firm, asked a nationally representative sample of 1,654 UK adults to read one of two political speeches written specifically for the poll. Participants were then asked about the speech they had read.

One speech argued that economic reconstruction must have the environment at its heart. The other insisted that the pandemic’s economic damage is so bad that giving the environment priority is currently unaffordable.

The report’s first author was Ben Kenward of the UK’s Oxford Brookes University. It has not been peer-reviewed, but has been published as a pre-print, a version of a scientific manuscript posted on a public server prior to formal peer review, by Dr Kenward and a colleague from the University of Amsterdam.

Political overlap

Dr Kenward said: “The headline result of this study is not only that 62 per cent of the UK population are positive about seeing the economy at the heart of post-Covid economic recovery, but also that this number is the same when focusing on Conservative voters − 62 per cent.”

This indication that Conservative support for environment-friendly policies post-Covid is now strengthening reinforces other evidence. The opposition Labour party is also giving more thought to what needs to happen, as are a number of smaller parties.

The YouGov study detects no effect of social class on how positive respondents are towards making the environment the priority: 65 per cent of those with higher and intermediate managerial and professional roles are positive, and 59 per cent of those described as semi-skilled, unskilled, and unemployed, a difference regarded by the social scientists as inside the margin of error.

Dr Kenward told the Climate News Network he thought that could be a more significant finding than the overall level of support the study revealed.

If politicians from the right as well as the left make the case for a green recovery from the pandemic, then this message will be heard beyond the ‘usual suspects’.

Adam Corner, research director, Climate Outreach

He said: “What’s most striking about these results is that people’s social grade – whether they are, say, senior managers or have low status manual jobs – has no relation to how much they want to prioritise the environment.

“That the population as a whole is positive [towards environment-friendly recovery policies] is further confirmation of earlier studies, but that this applies across demographics is new and unusual.

“Normally concern about the environment is more prominent in the middle classes. It seems there may be something about Covid-19 that is making environmental concern more universal.

“We can’t yet be sure what that is, but possibly the experience of a new kind of national emergency makes other coming emergencies seem more real to more people.”

His co-author Cameron Brick added: “After Brexit [the UK’s referendum vote to leave the European Union], it seemed like tribal memberships might be the most important drivers of public opinion. That’s why it’s surprising that political identification is not the main finding here. This provides a bipartisan opportunity for economic plans that can also manage threats like the climate crisis.”

‘Encouraging’ findings

Dr Adam Corner, of the UK charity Climate Outreach, said: “If politicians from the right as well as the left make the case for a green recovery from the pandemic, then this message will be heard beyond the ‘usual suspects’, and that is crucial for building support across the political spectrum and avoiding polarisation in the wake of Covid-19.”

Professor Wouter Poortinga is co-director of the UK’s Centre for Climate and Social Transformations (CAST). He told the Network: “These findings are highly relevant and encouraging …

“We should try to make this a green recovery with investments that do not only bring short-term economic benefits but also long-term structural changes that help us to meet our climate goals. This research shows that there is great support from across the political spectrum for such a sustainable recovery.”

The sample was representative of British adults in terms of age, gender, and social class, and further weighted by age, gender, social class, region, and how respondents voted at the 2019 general election and in the EU referendum on the UK’s membership. Fieldwork was carried out online between 30 April and 1 May 2020. 

This story was published with permission from Climate News Network.

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