climate change politics

A mandate for climate ambition

This year the British government announced a new target to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050. Despite it being the first major economy to make such a commitment, campaigners insist that it isn’t enough. Extinction Rebellion argue for 2025 as a better target – one that reflects the urgency of the climate crisis, but also Britain’s historical emissions. By moving faster, we would create more breathing space for developing countries that have contributed very little to the problem.

There are a handful of reasons to question Extinction Rebellion’s demands – including the question of whether or not it’s actually possible. Even if it is feasible, 2025 means that incremental change is impossible – we can’t pursue efficiency or even transition. It means shutting down fossil fuels, and banning things that a lot of people like doing.

That’s all very well for radicals like Extinction Rebellion to suggest. If you’re involved in a civil disobedience movement, you’re going to be okay with uncomfortable compromises. But do ordinary people want radical and rapid change to their lifestyles? Is that a fair thing to ask?

Some would argue that this is an emergency and it doesnt matter – we have to do what needs to be done, whether people like it or not. Except that it doesn’t work like that in a democracy. At a time when democracy is under serious strain, the last thing we need is environmentalists equivocating over its value as well. We have to pursue change within the structures of democracy, and that means that radical decarbonisation needs wide support.

Where do we stand on that? Survation released some interesting research on this recently. They asked specifically about that 2025 target, and here’s the response:

Apparently, a third of British people think the target should be brought forward to 2025. Just shy of another third support moving it forward from 2050. Fewer than one in ten argue for it to be pushed back or cancelled.

That’s an extraordinary mandate for more robust action on the climate.

It does raise some follow-up questions mind you. Do people have any idea what is involved with that kind of accelerated climate programme? If they think it’s important, why aren’t they doing more personally – I don’t see 33% of the population giving up driving, flying or eating meat, all things that would have to be reviewed to meet net zero. If the government were to act on this survey finding, I doubt that they would enjoy the 64% approval rating suggested here.

Let’s not get hung up on that specific date though. The survey also found that most people think the government won’t meet its 2050 target, suggesting we would like to see more leadership. People say they’re willing to do things such as drive less or buy fewer clothes. And this is the one that warms my postgrowth heart: half of British citizens say climate change action is more important than economic growth.

In our book, The Economics of Arrival, Katherine and I have a boxed section where we collect quotes from politicians around the world talking about how economic growth is their main priority. On this, they may well be out of step with voters. Economic growth matters, but it cannot be priorised at the expense of the environment.

Perhaps there is a stronger mandate for ambitious climate change plans than we might think.


  1. Huge changes don’t have to be made all at once. Do some reasonably acceptable things now, let people get used to those, then make some more. eg Now you could increase the costs of fossil fuels, tax beef, introduce a frequent flyer levy, introduce tougher building regulations etc, remove fossil fuel subsidies etc. Then in 3-5 years time, take the next steps. Crucially, show there is a plan, so there are no nasty surprises.

    1. Absolutely, and perhaps the most important thing is the plan – that consistent signal about the direction of travel. That’s been completely absent in Britain over the last decade, with new environmental policies announced and then ditched, and the solar industry wrecked twice by sudden changes.

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