Most people in the UK support all types of climate change policy, a new study finds

The majority of the UK supports even the most stringent climate change policies, although lenient policies are most popular.

There are regional variations within this public support that are likely to be due to regional differences in ideology and public infrastructure. 

The new study was undertaken by Dr Christian Bretter, Research Fellow in Environmental Psychology in the Institute for Transport Studies and Dr Felix Schulz, interdisciplinary Research Fellow at Leeds University Business School. 

The paper, titled ‘Public support for decarbonization policies in the UK: exploring regional variations and policy instruments’ is published in Climate Policy. 

“With the imminent climate crisis, we wanted to apply our expertise to better understand why some people are more supportive of actions than others and consequently what can be done to boost support,” say the researchers. 

Different policy instruments

Policymakers use different instruments that aim to reduce carbon emissions. 

Generally, these can be divided into four categories:

  • Regulatory policies, such as efficiency standards for buildings, cars and processes, a ban of cars with a combustion engine, a phase-out of coal mining 
  • Market-based policies, such as subsidies, taxes or carbon markets 
  • Information-based policies, such as “traffic light” labels on products, energy efficiency labels or disclosure requirements, and 
  • Voluntary policies, such as carbon offsets, company net zero pledges and International Organization for Standardization (ISO) standards. 

Regulatory and market-based policy instruments are more effective in reducing CO2 emissions than voluntary and information-based policies. 

Dr Bretter and Dr Schulz asked a representative sample of 1900 individuals about these policies to find out how much the UK public supports them. 

Their questions were based on actual policy proposals by political parties and institutions in the UK, reflecting real possibilities for UK climate policy. 

A lack of public support is frequently cited by the UK government as the main reason for not implementing more stringent policy instruments for the climate, so this study’s findings are crucial. 

Regional differences in policy support

This study found that the majority of participants supports all four policy instruments under investigation, even the most stringent measures. 

“While the Conservative government is rolling back climate policy measures and betting on a public that is against climate policies, our results show that the majority of people is in favour of more effective (and stringent) policies,” said Dr Christian Bretter. 

The researchers examined regional differences in policy support for each of the policy instruments and found that, compared to those living in Greater London, those living in the remainder of the country were less likely to support more stringent policy measures. 

They were 30% less likely to support regulatory measures and 32% less likely to support market-based policies.

The government needs to significantly increase investments in public infrastructure that allows people to live a more sustainable life

Dr Felix Schulz

Regional differences in belief in a free-market ideology and the lack of public infrastructure in more rural areas contribute to these findings. 

The results show that there are ideological and structural barriers to gaining full public support of climate policies. 

“The neoliberal ideology and its advocacy of supposedly ‘free’ markets still haunt the UK public today and stand in the way of more support for effective climate change policies,” says Dr Schulz. 

“The lower support for stringent environmental policy in more rural areas is not surprising. 

“The government needs to significantly increase investments in public infrastructure that allows people to live a more sustainable life. This will increase public support for regulatory and market-based policies.” 

The social barriers to climate action

The researchers explain the importance of understanding the public’s perceptions of climate policy: 

“Being engaged in social-psychological research, it has been clear to us that some of the barriers we are facing in regard to the climate crisis are not technical. They are of social nature. 

This puts people and their perceptions of the world at the forefront of solutions to fight the climate crisis.

Their key findings are as follows: 

  • The majority of the UK public supports all climate policy instruments regardless of their stringency. 
  • More stringent decarbonisation policies (regulatory and market-based instruments) received less public support compared to more lenient policies (information-based and voluntary). 
  • Individuals in Greater London are more likely to support regulatory and market-based decarbonisation policies compared to both the UK average and individuals living in many of the less populated areas of the country (eg, East of England, East Midlands, Yorkshire and The Humber, the North West, Scotland and Northern Ireland). 
  • Population density as a structural factor helps to explain regional variation and points to the crucial role of improving public infrastructure, particularly in more rural areas.  
  • Free-market beliefs are associated with regional and individual variations in support and stress the need for overcoming ideological barriers. 
  • Income influences support for less stringent (eg information-based) instruments but was not associated with support for regulatory and market-based instruments. 

Dissecting drivers for climate support

This research is one of the first to look at regional variations of climate policy support in the UK. While public support has been studied for some time, the use of actual policy proposals is rare. 

The results show that there are clear differences between support levels across the country and they suggest what could be done to improve support. 

“We hope that fellow scholars follow suit and examine such support on a more granular level, and not ‘just’ nationally," say the authors. 

The researchers have since received additional funding from the Leeds University Business School Climate Change Research Fund to compare public support for different climate policies across six countries. 

They will investigate public perspectives in the UK, the USA, Germany, China, South Africa and Brazil on a national and regional level. 

They will then be able to dissect the common and distinct drivers for climate policy support globally.

About the researchers 

Dr Christian Bretter is a Research Fellow in Environmental Psychology at the Institute for Transport Studies at the University of Leeds. 

He is particularly interested in the intersection of environmental behaviour, social psychology and political psychology.

Using quantitative methods such as survey designs, experiments or panel data, he is trying to understand why people behave environmentally (un)friendly, the drivers of this behaviour and potential interventions how we can shift individuals to behave more sustainably. 

Recently, he has become more interested in public support of climate policies and the drivers associated with a lack of public support for specific policy instruments. 

Dr Felix Schulz is an interdisciplinary Research Fellow at Leeds University Business School drawing labour economics, industrial relations, environmental labour studies and social psychology. 

His research is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) in the UK and the Hans-Böckler-Stiftung in Germany. 

He uses large-scale representative surveys and interviews to understand individual and institutional level barriers to the social-ecological transformation.  

Next to specific aspects around labour unions and the labour market, Dr Schulz is interested in the role of value orientations in public support for climate change policies.