People would be prepared to continue many of the lifestyle changes enforced by the coronavirus lockdown to help tackle the climate emergency, and the government would have broad support for a green economic recovery from the crisis, according to a report.
Working from home is a popular option, along with changes to how people travel, and the government should take the opportunity to rethink investment in infrastructure and support low-carbon industries, the report found.
The findings come from Climate Assembly UK, a group of 108 members of the public chosen to be representative of the UK population and to help shape future climate policy by discussing options to reach net zero carbon emissions, in line with the government’s 2050 target.
Nearly eight in ten of the members said the measures taken by the government to help the economic recovery from Covid-19 should be designed to help reach net zero, and an even bigger proportion – 93% – said that, as the lockdown eased, the government and employers should encourage lifestyle changes to cut emissions.
“It was quite clear that many of the assembly members felt this period should be taken as an opportunity to encourage a green economic recovery with a focus on promoting cleaner, greener lifestyles, and an economy that prizes sustainability over short-term benefits that would harm the planet,” said Ibrahim, an assembly member who is a GP from Surrey.
“It feels that climate change is as big a crisis as Covid,” said one respondent. “[We] don’t want the government to put climate change on the back burner because of Covid.”
Another unnamed member said: “It would be too easy to just carry on as before and take advantage of cheap oil and other special offers, [such as] cheap travel, cheap clothes, factories turning out cheap goods, to get the economy going. We need incentives to reduce emissions … and penalties for people who do not consider the environment when building or rebuilding businesses.”
The chairs of the six select committees of MPs who commissioned the Climate Assembly wrote to the prime minister on Monday to say the experience of the coronavirus crisis was likely to make people more receptive to green messages from government.
“In recent months, the UK public has demonstrated its capacity to respond positively and responsibly when they understand the risks posed to them by an invisible threat that demands collective action. We believe that a similar approach, based on securing public support for ambitious policies through open dialogue around the science, is a sound basis for the net zero journey,” they told Boris Johnson in a letter.
Jim Watson, a professor of energy policy at University College London, who spoke to the assembly as an expert, said he was struck by what a “very very strong result” the questions produced. “People are prepared to change,” he said. “[But] they don’t see lifestyle changes in isolation from policy change and what businesses are doing. There is very strong support for the government shaping and directing the economy [towards net zero emissions].”
Their opinions carry no legal weight or official recognition, but the organisers said the assembly members’ views were significant because “there is no other group that is at once a representative sample of the UK population, and well-acquainted with the sorts of measures required to reach net zero”. The assembly met for three weekends in Birmingham early this year, before lockdown, and since then attended three online meetings in April and May.
Citizens’ assemblies have been used in other countries to help guide government decisions on tricky or controversial policy issues, most notably on the 2018 referendum on abortion in Ireland.
Their full findings will be released in September, but an interim report on the impact of the Covid-19 crisis is being published on Tuesday because the government is engaged in working out its economic response to the pandemic. The interim findings will also figure in a report by the committee on climate change this Thursday, which does carry statutory weight, as the government must make a formal response.
Campaigners called on ministers to take note, and plan for a green recovery that would be “mind-blowingly popular”. Muna Suleiman, a climate campaigner at Friends of the Earth, said: “It’s time to push the reset button on our carbon-guzzling and dysfunctional economic system, and prioritise the health and wellbeing of our planet and its people.”
“Now the government has been given an overwhelming mandate for action from the informed public,” said Rosie Rogers of Greenpeace. “[If ministers fail to act] it will be glaringly obvious who they’ve been listening to behind the scenes.”