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Fairness in net zero should guide the future of climate policy

By Robin Webster on September 23, 2021

This blog was written by Robin Webster, David Powell and Alex Randall 

One of the most important factors influencing whether citizens support climate policies is whether they view them as fair. It is wrong on its own terms – and tactically – to push net zero without focusing on how to make climate policy as fair as possible. 

Chargemaster technicians building electric vehicle charging points at their Luton based factory (UK)

Just six weeks out from the pivotal COP26 climate talks in Glasgow, a backlash on the costs of action has gathered steam. Media and politicians arguing that Britain’s net zero target will make people poorer puts at risk a social and political consensus behind the need to cut greenhouse gas emissions.

Public concern in the UK about climate change remains at record levels – and the number of voices currently backing a rethink on the need to bring emissions to net zero by the middle of the century is still small. Climate Outreach’s Britain Talks Climate project demonstrates that people across different social and political backgrounds in this country are worried about climate change, and as others have pointed out, that concern is less politically polarised than in some other countries. 

But the last few years have also shown that seemingly ‘fringe’ arguments have the potential to move to the mainstream, and the argument about who is hit hardest by reducing emissions is unlikely to go away – particularly in uncertain economic times. 

Fairness is a basic value and a compelling argument for many people. Previous research suggests that the perceived fairness and equity of climate policy is one of the most important factors influencing whether citizens support it. Where policy is seen as placing an undue burden on the public or on specific groups – rural people for example, or a particular profession – obtaining broad support often proves an uphill battle. 

In France, the Yellow Vests protest movement was partially prompted by ‘green’ policy that aimed to increase the running costs of old, less efficient cars – and meant poorer people who couldn’t afford a newer car suffered financially. More recently, a central message of the  Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR)’s Environmental Justice Commission is that people instinctively feel that the poorest in society should not bear the costs of climate action.

Climate Outreach’s Britain Talks Climate research demonstrates that public concern about climate change is high across different political perspectives. 60% of Loyal Nationals – an audience segment who tend to vote Conservative and support more populist views – for example say they are “very” or “extremely” worried about climate change. But Loyal Nationals are also cynical about political elites and distrustful of big business. They feel angry and threatened by many issues and feel strongly that climate policy should be fair if they are to support it. Arguments about the poorest being hit hardest are likely to resonate deeply with this group.  

The days of cutting carbon without people really noticing – by, for example, substituting renewable energy for coal – are probably also coming to an end. As the Committee on Climate Change makes clear, the next bit is the tricky stuff like homes, transport and diets. In such a situation, citizens are perhaps entitled to a degree of scepticism about whether decarbonisation will be managed in a way that protects the poorest from rising prices. 

Over the years Climate Outreach’s work has repeatedly found how important it is to listen to people, to give their concerns and needs genuine respect, and to both treat and be seen to treat them fairly. It can be done. The UK’s Climate Assemblies, for example, have shown how effectively public consent can swing behind ostensibly tricky bits of climate policy when people are listened to and engaged in the conversation and the design of solutions.

Achieving decarbonisation requires not just serious financial investment but serious public support, which in turn requires serious public engagement. As a dynamic guiding the coming months and years of climate policy, the idea of fairness needs to be actively embraced and understood – not avoided.  It is wrong on its own terms to push net zero without focusing on who wins and loses from it. It is also wrong tactically – because if climate policy is not felt to be fair, it risks becoming a wedge that splits the UK’s delicate consensus on the need for action. 


Climate Outreach would like to thank the Samworth Foundation for supporting the writing of this blog as a part of the Climate Engagement Lab. The Britain Talks Climate work referred to in this blog comes from a collaboration between Climate Outreach, More in Common, the European Climate Foundation and YouGov.

By Robin Webster

Robin led the Advocacy Communications programme for Climate Outreach until April 2023, focusing on providing civil society campaigners with knowledge, tools and research to help them engage all sorts of people on climate change. She loves working with campaigners for their resilience and positivity even when facing up to the world’s biggest challenge. She has been knocking around the environmental world for twenty years as a researcher, journalist and campaigner, first becoming interested in the disconnect between political debate about climate change and how we talk about it in real life whilst working as campaigner for Friends of the Earth. She helped to start up Carbon Brief when it began life as a climate science and energy blog and has spent more time than is healthy digging into the intricacies of climate policy, including as a researcher for the European Climate Foundation. 

Robin has a Masters in Conservation from UCL and an undergraduate degree in Biology. She is the author of Climate Outreach’s #TalkingClimate handbook amongst many others, and has lived in the UK, USA, Uganda and Austria. In her spare time Robin hikes, swims, cycles and teaches and plays at comedy improv, which she thinks is the best art form in the world.

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