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Charlotte Gill: How likely is a referendum on Net Zero?

Over the last few days, a rather interesting poll by YouGov has been released. It showed that the British public are in favour of a referendum on the Government’s Net Zero proposals by the next general election. Forty two per cent, in total, want a vote on the plan, 30 per cent don’t want one and 28 per cent did not declare any preference. However, when “don’t knows” were excluded from the data, 58 per cent wanted a vote on the matter.

This poll will not please the Government. In the past it could reassure itself that, as Net Zero was included in the Conservative Party manifesto of 2019, it had a clear mandate to move forward with its eco plans. But the data may be the clearest sign yet of growing public discontent. Though Net Zero was, indeed, spelled out in the document, perhaps it seemed like a minor detail among Getting Brexit Done and Levelling up.

Now, of course, no one can miss it. As time has moved on, the headlines around it have been some of the most dramatic, even in the Covid era. From the talk about having to give up meat, to the suggestion of gas boilers being ripped out of houses around Britain, to the fact that Net Zero is estimated to cost £1 trillion over the next three decades, there’s no getting away from the eco revolution.

Many are already living under very noticeable green policies. In my local area, for instance, the Labour-run council has installed Low Traffic Neighbourhoods (LTNs), and Ultra Low Emission Zones (ULEZs) have been expanded all across London. When I recently interviewed local tradesmen about these two things, they were unbelievably frustrated. I have no doubt that they care about the environment, but they are losing jobs due to the amount of time it takes to get through LTNs and have spent thousands upgrading their vehicles. No one listens to any of their concerns.

How would they vote, I wonder, were there a referendum on Net Zero? But what would one even look like? It’s worth pointing out that the YouGov poll asked whether people would want a referendum on Net Zero proposals, rather than Net Zero itself, but this could contain a huge number of questions. Case in point: the Climate Change Committee (CCC), the Government’s independent advisory group on reaching Net Zero, has offered over 200 recommendations about how the UK can get there. Where do you start with that list? 

Perhaps eco policies could be grouped into specific areas – from “the home” to “vehicle use”. Or maybe, as time goes on, the public will be asked to make trade offs, such as “Would you rather be a vegan or stop flying for X amount of time?” I half-joke, but it strikes me this is not so far away from the truth. Either way, you can see the complexity of bringing Net Zero to the ballot box.

One thing is for certain, which is that the Government would never put one question to the public – namely “Should the UK achieve Net Zero by 2050?” – as the UK is already legally binded towards the 2050 target through the Climate Change Act, as amended in 2019. The genie is out of the bottle and we have already done so much to become eco friendly. Do not expect to see campaigners in “Vote Net Zero” t-shirts any time soon.

Even if we weren’t legally obliged, though, it’s unlikely the Government would risk public consultation on the matter. The implications of getting the “wrong” answer would be staggering, and it cannot bank on getting the “right” one. It was interesting to note that earlier this year, Swiss voters rejected a proposed new climate law by 52 per cent – compared to 48 per cent – in a referendum. It was a warning to eco-conscious leaders on how the vote could go.

Ultimately, as was the case with the Coronavirus Act, the Government has simply decided that there’s an emergency and that this justifies it pushing through its Net Zero agenda. And so, dreaming of any vote in this becomes a futile exercise.

That doesn’t mean, however, that the Government shouldn’t think hard about how to get more public involvement on its decisions. Without doing so, it seems to me that negative attention will turn to the CCC, which risks attracting the same resentment that was once directed at the EU – due to its unelected representatives and impact on policy. Voters can end up feeling “left behind”, too, as was the case in the referendum.

In general, the Government needs to check in with the public more. It has, perhaps, become overly accustomed to not having to do this during the pandemic. But beneath the slogan of “Build Back Better”, I wonder if it can hear the anger among those struggling with ULEZs and similar policies? It must connect with these voters – before it finds the next general election a de facto referendum on Net Zero.

Conservative Home, 29 October 2021