Climate and the environment have been steadily making their way up the political agenda of the British public, and younger voters are leading the march.
In 2012, when the then Department for Energy and Climate Change carried out the first wave of its energy and climate change public opinion tracker, only two per cent of the people asked felt that climate change was the biggest challenge facing Britain.
Now in 2017, climate change is the number one issue that young people aged 18-28 wish senior politicians would discuss more, according to a poll by the conservative think tank, Bright Blue. For the under 40s, climate change is second only to health, ahead of education, housing and immigration.
According to Bright Blue’s research, the top three policies that would bring pride to voters under the age of 40, should a political party choose to adopt them, are all environmental. Of those polled, 83 per cent would feel proud to vote for a party that committed to generating more electricity from renewables; 77 per cent want to see a ban on the trade of all ivory products in the UK and 71 per cent favour policies that encourage people to invest in home insulation.
Why does the young vote matter? According to YouGov, age is the new gold standard for predicting voting behaviour, as was clearly the case in the EU referendum and the 2017 general election. But until recently, young voters have been dismissed as disillusioned or apathetic. Before the rise of Jeremy Corbyn they weren’t seen as electorally valuable. Even before Corbynmania, young people had been politically engaged, but in alternative issue-based forms of politics, away from the electoral mainstream. This is changing. Galvanised by Brexit, the youth vote in the 2017 general election was the highest it’s been in 25 years. With Labour and the Conservatives jostling for prime position in the polls, wooing the young will be key to future electoral success. But to do that, the political elite on both sides will have to start talking more about climate change.
An opportunity too good to miss
The long anticipated clean growth plan, expected imminently, is a fantastic opportunity for the government to respond to the interests of young voters and signal its intentions on the climate change agenda. The plan will set out a strategy to meet the commitments of the fourth and fifth carbon budgets whilst stimulating clean economic growth.
If the government is to take seriously the preference of younger people for wind and solar powered electricity, it should use the plan to step up support for renewables, in which investment is expected to peak at £6.2 billion in 2017-18 before plummeting 95 per cent to less than £0.3 billion in 2020-21. Analysis published in Green Alliance’s September report Closing the clean power gap suggests that the government should invest £1.7 billion by 2025 in low carbon power auctions to take full advantage of the falling costs of renewable energy.
Young voters are right to be concerned about the UK’s energy mix. They’ve also hit the nail on the head when it comes to housing and insulation. Last year, Innovate UK studied 350 homes as part of its Building Performance Evaluation programme. They found that the average carbon emissions of the homes studied were 2.6 times higher than their designers had intended. This divergence in energy efficiency away from industry expectations has much to do with insulation, as Bright Blue’s respondents have identified, and as the Association for the Conservation of Energy has confirmed. Clearly, more needs to be done. Energy UK has suggested that EPC targets should be strengthened to bring UK emissions in line with the fifth carbon budget. We recommend setting a target to improve the energy efficiency standards of all existing domestic and commercial properties to EPC C by 2035. Similarly, the reintroduction of a zero carbon homes standard by 2020 would send a strong signal to young voters that the government is taking their environmental concerns seriously.
Don’t turn back, turnout
Young people have recently bucked the trend of the last quarter of a century and demonstrated, in no uncertain terms, their electoral weight. But they need to maintain this pressure if they are to translate their political capital into policy outputs. Continuing their engagement with issue-based campaigns remains a powerful way of communicating their opinions, but without sustained high levels of turnout their voices might once again fall on deaf ears.
Young people and the government stand to win both economic and electoral gains from renewed commitments on climate and the environment. An ambitious clean growth plan would be a great way to start.
[Image: Climate March 21/09/14 – 06 by Garry Knight from Flickr Creative Commons]