Earth Day: How important is climate change and the environment to Britons?

Eir NolsoeData Journalist
April 22, 2021, 8:30 AM UTC

The public have more faith in international leaders than Boris Johnson to make the right decisions on climate change

The UK will host the UN climate conference COP26 this autumn, described by Joe Biden’s climate envoy, John Kerry, as the world’s ‘last best chance’ to stop climate catastrophe.

But after a tumultuous year in which the pandemic has wrecked the economy and strained the NHS, how strongly do Britons feel about climate change? 

A YouGov/The Times poll shows that the public overwhelmingly believe climate change results from human activity (75%) rather than from something else (11%) or that it doesn’t exist (3%). But only a quarter of Britons (26%) say it’s among the top three most pressing issues facing the government after the pandemic ends. More people see the economy (64%), unemployment (41%) and health (40%) as the most urgent issues.

Among Conservative voters, only one in six (16%) say the environment and climate change are among the government’s biggest challenges, compared with 40% of Labour supporters.

People are most likely to say plastic use is the most important environmental issue

Over two fifths of Britons (45%) say the government’s most important environmental problem to address is reducing the use of plastics, including 47% of Tory and 44% of Labour voters. While plastic pollution is a prominent issue, some critics say it distracts from bigger threats such as climate change.

Reducing the amount of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses, which is necessary to stop temperatures from rising too rapidly, is the second most popular choice at 39%. Labour voters are much more likely to deem it important, at 54% compared with 30% of Conservative supporters. Meanwhile, Tory voters are more likely to see protecting the countryside and green spaces as the most important, at 39% compared with 28% of Labour voters. 

Who do Britons trust to lead the way on climate change?

Only a third of the public (35%) say they trust Boris Johnson to make the right decisions on climate change and the environment, while a majority of 54% do not. Britons have more faith in the American president Joe Biden, at 42% vs 35%, and German chancellor Angela Merkel, at 39% to 35%.

Despite the lack of faith in the prime minister to make the right calls on climate change, a YouGov/Sky News poll shows people don’t feel that confident in the leader of the opposition, Keir Starmer, either. While 26% say they would trust a Conservative government under Johnson more with such decisions, a similar figure (24%) would prefer Starmer, while the most popular choice was neither, at 31%.

Britons are happy for air travellers to pay more, but taxes on gas bills or meat are unpopular

Specific policies aimed at lowering carbon emissions are met with mixed opinions. A majority (56%) would support taxing air travellers more the further they fly, while a third (33%) are opposed.

Banning the sale of new petrol and diesel cars from 2030, an existing government policy announced last autumn, also has the backing of half of the nation at 51%, while a third (35%) are against it.

While increasing numbers of people are changing their diets to reduce their carbon footprint, a majority of Britons (56%) are opposed to new taxes on meat such as beef that produces high emissions. Similarly, three in five people (59%) are against new taxes on gas bills to encourage people to switch to electricity, while only a quarter are in favour (24%).

See the full results here and here