Coronavirus: ‘Green recovery’ risks voter backlash unless it boosts households and jobs

Prime minister Boris Johnson unveiling his plan to lift the UK economy in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. Photo: Paul Ellis/WPA Pool/Getty Images
Prime minister Boris Johnson unveiling his plan to lift the UK economy in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. Photo: Paul Ellis/WPA Pool/Getty Images

Putting voters under further economic strain in order to tackle climate change as part of a so-called “green recovery” from the coronavirus crisis risks a backlash at the ballot box, according to the Social Market Foundation (SMF).

Politicians should emphasise the potential benefits of environmental policies for household finances and jobs instead of appealing to the public’s apparent willingness to endure economic and social discomfort to mitigate climate change, the think tank said.

Analysis of polling data and previous environmental initiatives suggests that policymakers should try to convince voters that “greener is cheaper,” according to the think tank.

Otherwise, voters facing economic hardship as a result of the coronavirus crisis could turn against environmental policies, denting the momentum of the climate change movement.

The SMF said it was thus urging politicians “to back up environmental rhetoric with early action on household finances and jobs,” noting that small-scale efforts, such as the decarbonisation of homes, could deliver short-term economic stimulus by creating jobs and boosting household finances.

READ MORE: IMF warns it is 'too early' to predict V-shaped recovery for UK economy

It also acknowledged that large-scale infrastructure projects would bring economic benefits and will be necessary to achieve net-zero carbon emissions in the long-term, but said that promising them before voters feel the benefits of a recovery could dent public support.

The analysis was published in a report as part of the think tank’s Towards Net Zero project, which is sponsored by Scottish gas and electricity firm ScottishPower. The SMF said it nevertheless retained “full editorial independence.”

Prime minister Boris Johnson this week unveiled a so-called “new deal” to boost the UK economy in the wake of the coronavirus crisis.

But it has faced criticism both for its scale — an outlay of £5bn ($6.2bn) on infrastructure is relatively little, given the scale of the crisis — and for its scant mention of climate change initiatives.

While Johnson mentioned hydrogen, carbon capture, wind, and solar power in his speech, he did not unveil hoped-for policies to promote the construction of wind farms.

READ MORE: UK economy suffered biggest fall since 1979 as pandemic struck

While the prime minister also referenced net-zero emissions and upgrades to cycle routes, there were also no new commitments in this respect.

International Monetary Fund chief economist Gita Gopinath told MPs on Wednesday that the UK government should prioritise spending on climate change initiatives as part of the economic response to the coronavirus pandemic.

But Amy Norman, a researcher at the SMF, said that assuming voters would accept more hardship over climate change “would be a big risk.”

“Voters largely accepted economic disruption to control the virus because they could see its immediate dangers,” she said.

“To win and keep consent for the Net Zero agenda, leaders must explain clearly how green policies will deliver financial benefits and jobs to people living in an economy under serious strain.”