Society’s attitudes on climate change could just be looked at as a scale, running between very or fairly concerned and accepting of the science of human induced climate change on the one hand, or complete and utter denial on the other.
It’s perhaps more useful though, to separate climate opinion into 4 distinct groups of actions to address it.
- A – Behaviour change
- B – Decarbonised technology
- C – the Mainstream
- D – Deniers
How these 4 groups inter-react may affect whether the UK and indeed humanity succeeds or fails in tackling our existential climate threat. In particular I wonder if differences in actions to decarbonise, risk “friendly fire” between group A, who focus on behaviour change & B who focus on decarbonising technology to deliver sharp reductions in our carbon impact.
Our simplified “opinion groups” on climate change
Group A – Behaviour change group
Assumptions: group A represents the views of around 10% of the UK population.
This opinion group worries most about climate. Many also are opposed to cars and campaign for plant based diets and against continued production of meat. The group is energetic and committed and includes many prominent climate scientists, climate focussed opinion writers, climate and air pollution and urban environment campaigners.
This group believe the heavy lifting of decarbonisation needs to be done by behaviour change. Like group B they believe that all new oil gas and coal development needs to stop but many don’t trust the notion that decarbonising technology will deliver. As a result they can be as receptive to media and fossil fuel lobbyist misinformation about Renewable energy, electric vehicles and heat pumps as group D, the deniers. In fact, they are often at least as opposed to electric vehicles as vehicles burning fossil fuel.
In absolute terms the behaviour change group’s per person carbon impact will usually be less than any other group. Many adopt an animal free diet, which, when it isn’t highly processed, will reduce their carbon footprint.
The behaviour change group perform a vital role in protests to keep climate change action in the news. They are however prone to overstating the carbon impact of building low carbon products and underestimating the CO2 reductions they deliver when in use. They are sometimes described as extreme or woke by right wing politicians and media outlets.
It’s important to note the phrase active travel does not just exclude private cars, it excludes buses, trains and tubes as well.
A primary buzz phrase of the behaviour change group is “active travel”. Active travel is defined as “travel, especially commuting or movement in one’s local area, of a kind that involves physical exercise, such as walking or cycling”. It’s important to note the phrase active travel does not just exclude private cars, it excludes buses, trains and tubes as well.. So group A have often given up car ownership and instead will prefer to walk and cycle. They do sometimes take buses and trains, don’t drive or fly and will probably still use gas heating but rarely, preferring warmer clothing over heating.
Group B Decarbonised technology group
Assumptions: group B represents the views of around 25% of the UK population. They include researchers, engineers and scientists working on climate change, decarbonisation and renewables technology and everyone interested in this field. Interestingly but also counterintuitively it includes some people who don’t believe climate change is an issue but are excited by post fossil technology or the economic benefits it can deliver.
Group B are, mostly though, very concerned about climate change and focussed on how the transition from fossil fuel to a zero carbon economy, combined with some behavioural change, can cut our climate impact. They are focussed on how to shift away from burning fossil fuels, in particular for energy, transport and heating.. Like group A, are firmly opposed to new oil and gas and coal developments.
Group B increasingly are concerned with switching to electric vehicles (both public and private on road or rail) and air or ground source heat pumps. They back the transition to a renewable plus zero carbon electricity grid and often generate their own solar.
Broadly, the decarbonised technology group 2 agree our CO2 footprint has to be reduced now and not rely on some unproven technologies like carbon capture solution down the road. They will spend more to cut emissions. Group B will probably also fly much less often but not never, and take electric trains and cars when possible, even when they are a bit less convenient. They may understate the carbon impact of manufacturing their technology today, but believe firmly this will fall as adoption spreads.
While Group B’s overall carbon impact may still be higher than group A, group B is likely to have already cut its emissions by more than the 1.5c target of halving emissions by 2030. For example, lifetime emissions from an electric rather deliver around a 60% reduction in CO2 compared to a combustion car, while a heat pump delivers around an 80% cut in the UK.
Group C the mainstream – ambivalent or confused
Assumptions: around 50% of the UK population has group C views
Group C are somewhat concerned about climate change but, generally not yet ready or willing to take much action that affects or inconveniences their lifestyle, even when they could afford it.
Groups A, B and D are all providing information and misinformation to sway group C into action or inaction. So for now group C will watch a David Attenborough documentary with a sigh, use a recycling bin, buy another hybrid SUV, another gas boiler, a plastic lawn and keep taking 4+ flights a year even for shorter trips. Generally at election times they will cast their votes in elections with climate being high on their priorities but not at the top.
Group C are also a bit unclear and confused about what they should be doing even if they wanted to. They are heavily swayed by the media outlets saying what action they should or should not take. For now though, all their chosen media outlets on the right and the left are bombarding them with tales of woe claiming renewable energy, electric vehicles and heat pumps will never work, even though they all already do. Slowly the herd may shift towards decarbonizing their daily lives, but it is happening too slowly in this key group. If it doesn’t get a move on then any reduction in CO2 group C achieves by 2030 will be mostly passive, largely from reductions in CO2 in the electricity grid.
Group D Climate change/global warming denial group
Assumptions: around 15% of the UK population has group D views
Group D vociferously deny all scientific evidence that humans are responsible for our planet’s warming and increasingly unstable climate, in fact they also often deny our planet is warming at all or say that if the world is warming it’s part of a normal long term pattern of change that is natural. They reject any attempt to transition away from fossil fuels and view action to curb global warming as an attack on their freedom.
Because they tend to reject commonly recognised factual or scientific evidence Group D are prone to conspiracy theories and hard to reason with, but extremely active in public discourse. They also have a higher media profile than one would expect because oil and gas lobbyists, opinion writers and media platforms amplify their message, as do well funded think tanks and associated political groupings, mainly from the political right.
A summary of UK climate opinion
At it’s face then, the assumptions for this article are:
Around 1/3 of UK society (A+B) is very concerned about climate change and starting to act to cut emissions
About 15% (D) believe it’s all a conspiracy to “deny freedom” to individuals and deny vast profits to their oil and gas backers and want to burn stuff until all life on earth is extinguished
About 25% (A+D) are actively trying to dissuade mainstream adoption of key decarbonisation technology like electric vehicles.
Around 50% in group C is yet to decide either way. Many are concerned but won’t act when the advice in the media and from group A & B is conflicting. This leads to a disconnect between polling concern or worry about climate change.. and the number actually doing anything about it.
How does that tally with current opinion polls?
At the time of writing a June 2023 YouGov poll on behalf of the Sun Newspaper found
- 65% support the UK Government’s net zero commitment by 2050 with just 19% against
- However as a priority net zero comes 8th after reducing bills, cutting NHS backlogs, growing the economy, stopping migrant boats, cutting crime, education and tax! It is worth noting that that inflation, pressure on the NHS and taxes will all be increased by worsening and unstable climate.
What about UK polling on climate change action?
- For the Labour party’s proposed ban of all new oil and gas development in the North Sea, 39% approve and 39% want to keep drilling!
Perhaps more hearteningly it’s mainly Conservative voters (59% of Tory voters from the 2019 general election) who want to keep drilling while 59% of labour voters and 55% of lib dem voters agree with the ban. If, as seems likely, many voters shift away from the Conservatives at the next election, they may end up with a very pro fossil fuel rump of support.
To reach net zero and 1.5c warming limits we need to stop new oil and gas development now.
- What about heat pumps? Well the poll question suggested the government would ban all new gas boilers from 2025 (in fact that only applies to new builds). 32% would support a ban on all gas boilers while 47% were opposed
Switching to heat pumps cuts lifetime emissions of CO2 by around 80% on the UK electricity mix however capacity for manufacturing and installing at scale and in flats will take some time. Also the UK Government’s failure to regulate the electricity market means households are currently paying over 4 times less to use gas, offsetting the efficiency of the heatpump for now.
- Ok but surely we’re ready to switch to electric cars with a petrol diesel ban by 2030? Ironically, polling here showed more people in favour of the 2030 petrol and diesel ban, 37%, and more against the ban 50%..There were fewer don’t knows on this one. Again this splits along party lines with around 50% of Labour and Lib Dem voters in favour but just 23% of conservative voters.
Each petrol or diesel car purchased in the UK in 2023 onwards will emit around 2.5 times as much CO2 over it’s life as a new EV. By 2030 this will expand to around 5x as UK electricity is being generated with less and less fossil fuel each year. To achieve the same CO2 reduction in a combustion car in 2030 an owner will need to cut their mileage driven by 80%, so perhaps from 10,000 miles to 2,000. That’s a lot of extra cycling if you don’t want an EV.
For live grid info, the I am Kate website has live and historical data. Emissions per kWh are shown as 505g of CO2 in 2012, By 2022 it has fallen 64% to 182g and 2023 to date is down another 14% to 157g so far in 2023.
Menu’s for a CO2 reduction
To succeed I believe we need to offer mainstream society choices from a broad “carbon reduction menu” to persuade them to do enough fast enough.
stop eating meat – switch to vegan plant based diet
stop owning cars – switch to active travel
stop flying and stop buying non essential consumer products
Stop burning gas – switch to air source heat pump
stop burning petrol and diesel – switch to electric vehicles
cut flying and avoid purchase of the most harmful consumer products and divest from fossil fuels – invest in wind, solar, battery storage and electric transport
Both menus provide ways for people to curb emissions but in different ways.
The behaviour change menu is, in my view, rather more puritanical and requires a big lifestyle change. The word “Puritan” means that followers had a pure soul and lived a good life.
By contrast, the decarbonised technology menu still lets you drive and heat your home as you do now, but far more efficiently using an increasingly low and soon to be zero carbon electricity supply. Because the shift from fossil fuels is providing big emissions cuts, other lifestyle changes are less severe for now. For example they might include frequent fliers taking a plane half as often but for longer breaks. There is nevertheless a growing expectation that those with the highest carbon impacts make the first and the biggest proportionate cuts.
Where choices from either menu lead to real emissions cuts they should be should be complimentary ways to reach a reduction goal. Unfortunately though, they are sometimes seen as alternatives…
Why actions reach climate goals need to be seen as complimentary, not opposites.
One problem though is this. Despite having “polar opposite” views on climate change, behavior change groups and the global warming denial groups frequently use the same talking points and often share a strong antipathy to the decarbonised technology that is required to cut emissions.
It’s a little unclear why but it could simply be that having chosen a car free and meat free life, that climate change is a validation of that choice and a reason for the rest of society to do the same. By solving some, though not all of the issues caused by fossil fuel vehicles, electric vehicles may be seen as an obstacle to that car free and meat free nirvana.
- A + D – They won’t cut carbon emissions
- B On the current UK electricity mix (which is getting cleaner each year) CO2 emissions are reduced by around 80% on each trip in an EV.
- A + D – Ah but the higher CO2 from constructing an EV plus its battery means CO2 will still be higher for the first 70,000 miles and hardly better overall.
- B Independent Research* has shown petrol/ diesel cars bought today emit 2.5 times more CO2 than an electric car over their lifetime (157,000 miles which is low) even after including car and battery production and electricity. On the planned UK electricity generation mix in 2030, well within the life of a car bought today, each petrol car will emit 5 times more CO2 than an EV.
CO2 break even on building an EV is between 10k and 25k miles, depending on battery size and electricity mix
*Sources ICCT and Transport and Environment
- A + D – Electricity for EV’s comes from coal plants anyway pushing CO2 and pollution somewhere else
- B According to the grid data site Iamkate for the 12 months up to 25th May 2023 only 1.2% of UK electricity was from coal
40.5% came from gas so a total of 41.7% from fossil fuels.
35% came from renewables and this is growing each year. In Q1 2023UK wind energy alone was the biggest source of electricity generation in the UK for the first time.
Another 21.7% came from mainly zero CO2 and zero pollution sources inc nuclear and imports although it also includes 5.3% biomass wood pellets (essentially just burning Canadian trees)
- A EV’s are all so heavy it will increase air pollution and they are “no cleaner than a diesel”
- D EV’s are all heavy which will make bridges and car parks collapse all over the country and they are “no cleaner than a diesel”
- B The idea that EV’s don’t substantially reduce harmful pollution is is frankly implausible. On measurable proxy’s (such as the life of tyres and brake pads) EV’s produce much less from brakes, slightly more from tyres and zero exhaust pollution.
The best selling electric cars in the UK like the Tesla Model 3 and Y or Vauxhall Corsa and Mini are not massive or particularly heavy. Depending on model most EV’s are 10-35% heavier than an electric car the same size but should fall in weight to parity over time. We would agree in principle with the idea of a weight tax on all cars including EVs over 2 tons should it prove necessary. Many petrol, diesel and hybrid SUV’s weigh far more than the best selling EV’s. For example a new petrol or hybrid Range Rover weighs about a ton more than an electric Tesla Model 3.
- A + D EV batteries are made out of material mined by child slaves in Africa
- B – Cobalt from the Congo is used in some EV batteries, but the amount used has already been reduced or eliminated in newer batteries and carmakers are taking steps to ensure their supply chains are ethically sourced. By contrast other mobile devices and laptops use a much higher proportion of cobalt.in their batteries. It’s worth noting that cobalt is also used to remove sulphur from oil before it is refined for petrol and diesel fuel. Despite this it does feel like all the publicity about the ethics of cobalt are aimed only at EV’s
How media outlets push group A C or D views
While much of the media oppose clean technology, the media are also reflecting both the denier and behaviour change viewpoints that they encounter.
Predominantly “Behaviour change” focussed papers like the Guardian advance the stories suggest
- electric cars are no better for the environment than cars powered by oil
- that electric vehicles are not the solution
- batteries are made by African children
- more CO2 is produced making an EV than will be cut by driving it
- Despite the fact the best selling electric cars weigh less than many diesel or hybrid SUVs, the Guardian claims electric cars will emit so much extra deadly particulate pollution from their tyres that it will outweigh the health benefits of eliminating all petrol and diesel cars exhausts
- suggest a few poorly designed chargers blocking pavements are indicative of our future.
By contrast the right wing “denial” press will
- claim the weight of electric cars will cause car parks and bridges to collapse. In fact they will use utterly misleading comparisons like the weight of a modern day EV with the weight of a Mark 1 Ford Cortina from 50 years ago
- claim the grid will collapse as EV’s are charged and heat pumps are connected
- claim a journey that is a doddle in an EV was a butt chenching nightmare”
- suggest heatpumps don’t work in cold weather ( something that would surprise Norwegians)
- the right wing press also like to suggest that readers would be making a mistake switching to an EV because they want to promote distraction technologies that are 2around the corner” like hydrogen or synthetic fuel. Hydrogen does have uses, but not in transport or heating. Michael Liebreich, an expert in the field explains why here in his keynote speech the 2022 Hydrogen Congress.
- Daily Telegraph
90% D, it is now fundamentally a climate change denying media outlet. They implacably oppose renewable energy, electric cars and heat pumps.
10% B. Some group B stories but mainly outside of UK news/comment in sections like in business or technology.
“Electric cars have a very dirty secret” 2022
“Banning cars by 2030 is a crazy act of self sabotage” 2023
“Electric cars are too heavy for old multi-storey carparks” 2023
“Why Britain’s electric cars risk driving into a massive black hole” 2023
“The electric car con will destroy our national infrastrucure” 2023
“Fitting a heat pump has been an expensive waste of time” 2023
“Britain’s misfiring wonder fuel condemns households to a heat pump future”
- The Times
The paper claims to be concerned about climate change and reports it but opposes all action by readers to avoid it. They overstate the problems and understate the positives of renewable energy, electric cars and heat pumps.
“Why I’ve pulled the plug on my electric car..The spark is gone — you’re better off walking than relying on useless, unreliable vehicles and chargers that never work” 2023
“Left grabs wheels on electric cars” 2023
“Forget electric cars, I just bought a petrol guzzler” 2023
“Ageing car parks ‘could collapse’ under electric car weight” 2023
- The Independent
The indie should be given some credit for their coverage of decarbonisation tech. They do have some articles at least as bad as the other main papers but most of the worst reporting is simply regurgitating a story from another paper like “call for car park designs to evolve to due to heavier electric cars” . This chestnut took a usual Telegraph storyline on car parks comparing a modern electric car weight to a vehicle from 50 years ago but made it even worse. This indie piece chose to compare the weight of an electric family car, a Kia E-Niro including 5 passengers and luggage at maximum weight with an empty 1970 Mini, misleadingly tipping the scales by an extra 444kg. If the story is real you don’t need to go to such extraordinary lengths to mislead. On the plus side positive stories are published too and some are even well researched. The fact is a spacious electric Tesla Model Y weighs about the same as a diesel MHEV Discovery Sport.
“Listen to green Mr Bean: Rowan Atkinson’s talking sense about electric cars” 2023
“Electric cars could save more than 100,000 lives, study claims. Targets to ban fossil fuel car sales by 2035 could also result in 3 million fewer asthma attacks” 2023
“Proportion of EV breakdowns due to running out of charge show sharp drop. The AA said just 2.1% of callouts it received from stranded EV drivers during the first five months of this year were for depleted batteries” 2023
- The Guardian
The paper claims to be concerned about climate change but opposes clean energy technology instead favouring behaviour change to deliver carbon emission reductions.
They overplay problems and understate the positives of electric cars and heat pumps. Some years ago the Guardian published an prominently reported a study that identified that 71% of global warming emissions were caused by just 100 oil companies. Does the fact the paper still seeks to dissuade peoples transition away from fossil fuels make it even more complicit than most media? You decide.
“Electric cars are not the solution to air pollution” 2017, 2020, 2021
“are electric vehicles so climate friendly” 2019
“I love electric vehciles and was an early adopter. But increasingly I feel duped- Rowan Atkinson” 2023
“Revealed:how US transition to electric cars threatens environmental havoc” 2023
- Mail, Express, SUN, Mirror
In reality, although these outlets often oppose action on climate change, they tend to randomly publish stories off news feeds that may be positive or negative. They overstate the problems and understate the positives of electric cars and heat pumps
“Is it the end of the road for us with our troublesome all-electric cars? Owners despair over battery problems and the lack of chargers” Daily Mail 2023
“ELECTRIC SHOCK : Drivers warned of serious problems with electric cars despite soaring popularity” The Sun 2023
“SHOCK TO THE SYSTEM Urgent warning for electric car drivers as further serious problems with EVs revealed” The Sun 2023
“HOLEY HELL Warning over electric cars as they could cause MORE potholes” The Sun 2023
“Helen Skelton ‘stranded’ in electric car after it stops working during evening journey” The Daily Mirror 2023
- The BBC
The BBC certainly highlights climate change as an issue as well. The problem thought is they seem incapable in “news and current affairs” of delivering both editorial balance and informed coverage. They have a tendency instead, to give equal platforms to denial groups representing lobbying interests which gives a false impression that there is no consensus. When group D contributors are used, the source of their funding or overall position on climate change is rarely or never provided.
Wilful ignorance – the secret weapon of UK Media stories on decarbonisation technology
I’ve been very patient on UK media stories about disaster and impending mayhem about the transition away from fossil fuels. Essentially it works like this
- Editor calls journalist or celeb and says we want a story about driving from London to Norwich in an electric car.
- Chosen journalist is either:
a newbie who has never owned an electric car nor used one for any long period or
a celeb that has had an EV but still has no idea how to use it.
- They are not told how to use one. They are handed a 3 pin plug on a lead and told to test out charging options using the car with a nearly empty battery waiting downstairs
- journalist has no idea how electric cars and phone apps easily help you find a faster charger or which charging networks work and which don’t
- Journalist or celeb that usually writes about cooking then produces a story about what a nightmare it was and the editor puts it on the front page.
The result is stories are still being published which EV owners find bears no relationship to their real world experience of driving. It’s the equivalent of saying a Sunday roast is rubbish because a journalist who’d never boiled an egg before was unable to get their roast potatoes crispy on the first attempt using a camping stove. What we need is some realistic articles highlighting which networks are a pain to use, which particular journeys are harder to make than they should be and investigating the cause of the sky high charging costs for DC public chargers.
The carbon reduction target we are aiming for..
At the very least, the global greenhouse gas emissions reductions needed to limit global warming to 1.5C are:
- peak emissions by 2025 and
- a fall by 43% by 2030 and then continued sharp falls to net zero by 2050
- It’s worth noting that even 1.5C will likely involve substantial change to our climate and some change is happening much faster than models predicted.
In the UK we do have one particular advantage. Our electricity grid is increasingly clean and will get lower in carbon emissions every year. That means we can cut emissions sharply especially by switching from petrol or diesel to electric cars, and from gas or oil heating to air source heat pumps.
Decarbonising tech gets hit from A and D viewpoints
This sounds like a dig at the media and their endless scare stories most of which have no factual basis. The reality though is many stories are driven by some climate change denial angles from group D but equally by opposition to new clean technology from group A. This wouldn’t matter if the mainstream (especially those Tory voters) were likely to cancel their flights, sell the diesel or hybrid SUV and travel by bicycle. The reality though is pure behaviour change has little or no traction with group C. What it does do is ensure group C just buys another diesel or petrol car and installs another gas boiler.
This wouldn’t matter if the mainstream were likely to dump their flights, sell the diesel SUV and travel by bicycle. The reality though is pure behaviour change has little or no traction with group C.
Is there evidence for this? Well sure it’s anecdotal but look at discussions on social media or newspaper comments from group D climate deniers. They have absolutely no interest in the environment but, alongside oil and gas industry talking points, they regularly quote stories from group A including about child labour, claimed electric car pollution and the CO2 benefits being illusory. So when we look at the arguments put forward by A & D they are not perceived by the public as opposing each other on the issue of decarbonising tech. To group C their arguments combine to boost each others credibility against the electrification of transport and heating. While the group C mainstream does not act, they are more positive about the transition to clean energy technology than group A.
What can we do? Focus on action
Somehow those of us who want the UK to cut carbon emissions, need to be able to agree that both clean tech and behaviour change are different but valid ways to get there. Failure to find a consensus will mean division, delay and failure and the world doesn’t have time for that.
What we also need to do is look at the psychology of climate change action. There has been some good research on this already and it needs more of our attention including from me. The current way we highlight the climate crisis is often presented as apocalyptic but “far away” and “a long time away”. This does not drive action, especially when not accompanied by practical steps people can take to avoid making it worse.
The reaction we may be getting instead may be more like this…
We need to achieve net zero by 2050 – golly, whoever is alive then will have their work cut out in 2049
large parts of the world will become uninhabitable with a combination of heatwaves, droughts and floods – thank goodness we don’t live there
Instead we need to focus more on what is happening close in time and place that is attributed to climate change and combine it with a menu of actions that help stop things getting worse. There are plenty of “close encouragements” to action right now, for example:
- more and more shortages and price rises staple foods in supermarkets are due to changing climate, It would really help if stores and media informed people when this is the case for example when a drought makes some foods unavailable. eg
French mustard was unavailable for months because of heatwaves and drought in Europe
Sugar prices are up 50% because rains in India are 3x previous levels
Olive oil is up 47% ( and Risotto rice is also up) because of Mediterranean drought
Pasta is up 50% following a drought affecting durum wheat from Canada
Overall an ECIU study found climate change was responsible for 37% of food price increases.
- flash flooding and fires in towns and countrywide damaging properties and disrupting travel in UK and Europe. Even if your holiday destination isn’t disrupted will family holidays in the med still be desirable at summer peak in temperatures from 40-50C that force people inside.
- highlighting the cost of fitting out properties to keep temperatures down in UK heatwaves.
- Preparing for areas like Hull to be regularly be flooded and countryside around to be unusable for farmland once contaminated with salt water from sea level rise.
- Even London is at increasing risk. Yes we have the Thames Barrier but we will have to spend more and more to ensure it remains effective until its likely replacement towards 2070.This will include more flood defenses as well as large areas of land between the barrier and the sea to be used as flood storage.
Whatever we do, we need to ensure fossil fuel lobbyists aren’t punching the air in jubilation because we are using their misinformation against each other.