Support for climate change policies and perceived effectiveness: which drives public opinion more?

Adam McDonnellResearch Director of Political and Social Research
October 31, 2021, 8:46 AM GMT+0

In some cases, people may be downplaying the effectiveness of policies because they don’t support them

With COP-26 fast approaching, the government have announced that subsidies to replace old boilers will be available from next year with a plan to no longer allow the sale of new gas boilers by 2035. This follows a previously announced policy of banning the sale of all petrol and diesel cars by 2030 as the UK strives for net-zero emissions. As action to tackle climate change ramps up, YouGov has tested support and perceived effectiveness of several potential policies, ranging from those already in the pipeline to more draconian restrictions.

The key finding from these results is that support and effectiveness correlate very strongly, with policies that are seen as being effective also being highly supported, and those that are seen as being less effective receiving little support.

On the face of it, this suggests that increasing how effective the public view a measure will increase support. However, it could actually be the other way round: there is some evidence in the results that the public may be rejected the effectiveness of some of the more extreme measures we tested due to viewing them unfavourably or as impractical.

For example, 46% thought introducing a ‘frequent flyer levy’ would be an effective measure, while only 35% thought preventing all air travel for leisure an effective measure. Clearly, banning large numbers of flights would cut more emissions than anything that could be done with the money raised from a levy of the small number of people who fly frequently. While it may be that the public view the first measure as a more impactful way to reduce CO2 emissions, it is more likely the difference here is down to objection towards the policy (75% oppose a leisure air travel ban, compared to only 25% for a frequent flyer levy).

Indeed, 51% of the public say they would be personally unwilling to stop flying for leisure, compared to 23% who are willing to do so or already doing so. Further, 76% believe most other people would be unwilling to make this change. This suggests that perceived effectiveness may also be being driven by its personal lifestyle impact and/or that the policy would be rejected by the public, rather than just its potential impact on climate change.

Another area where perceived effectiveness is at odds with what emissions levels would suggest could make a big impact is changes to diet. Again, we see that the less publicly palatable option is seen as less effective, even where logic would dictate it should be more effective: while support for limiting meat and dairy consumption is supported by twice as many as banning it altogether (21% to 10%), the latter is seen as slightly less effective (23%) than the former (26%).

Comparing these results with personal willingness actually tells a different story to the air travel results. Far more Britons claim to be personally willing to partially cut down meat and dairy in their diet (49%) than the levels of support for the policy might suggest, and are slightly more likely to cut them out completely (17%). Perceived unwillingness on the part of others, however, tracks more closely with support and effectiveness levels. Just three in ten (30%) think most people would be willing to cut back on meat and dairy, and only 10% say the same of cutting it out entirely.

This could indicate that higher levels of personal willingness are based on an acknowledgement of the need to change their diet (whether this be for environmental or other reasons such as health), but that ultimately the policy is being rejected on the grounds that it’s too much of an overreach for the state to control people’s diets so strictly.

Looking at the five most supported policy ideas from the 21 we tested, there is again a strong correlation between the two measures, but support outranks perceived effectiveness in each one. Planting more trees or introducing government subsidies to make homes energy-efficient are overtly positive actions when asked in isolation, so it is not too surprising that they are strongly supported. What is trickier to judge here is whether perceived effectiveness in tackling climate change is boosting support, or vice-versa. It could be that the public see these as “easy wins” with minimal personal impact and therefore an effective way to tackle the problem.

The two policy areas where support outranks effectiveness the most are banning cryptocurrency (45% support, 26% effective) and the aforementioned ‘frequent flyer levy’ (60% support, 46% effective). Both policies would impact a relatively small proportion of the population as very few Brits invest in cryptocurrency or fly regularly, so this lack of skin in the game may allow a greater number of people to feel able to support them.*

*Other factors could also be at play – as noted in our article looking in more detail at the cryptocurrency results, negative associations with cryptocurrency and criminal activity could also be playing a role in levels of support for banning it, not just the environmental factors.

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