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We want environmental action, but don’t want to make the lifestyle changes, Cambridge-led poll finds

Europeans have something of a hypocritical view when it comes to making the drastic changes needed to benefit climate change, a Cambridge-led survey has found.

Reducing meat consumption is one way to help tackle climate change
Reducing meat consumption is one way to help tackle climate change

While they want urgent action to tackle the climate crisis, they remain committed meat-eaters and question policy proposals such as banning the sale of new petrol vehicles after 2030.

A new poll from YouGov-Cambridge Centre surveyed attitudes in seven European countries including the UK.

Cambridge Zero, the University of Cambridge’s climate initiative, also found that as the UK prepares to host crucial climate talks in Glasgow, barely a third of British adults have noticed that the event is taking place.

Just 31 per cent of British adults have read or heard much about COP26 so far, compared with 63 per cent answering to the contrary, either “not very much” or “nothing at all”. These numbers barely changed in two months. However, the poll indicates that while survey participants may not be following COP26, a significant majority of the 9,000 people polled across the UK, Germany, France, Denmark, Sweden, Spain and Italy strongly support many of the aims of the talks, at least in principle.

Emily Shuckburgh, of Cambridge Zero
Emily Shuckburgh, of Cambridge Zero

Dr Emily Shuckburgh, director of Cambridge Zero, said: “As the impacts of climate change are starting to be felt everywhere, COP26 should be seen as a vital summit where the world must deliver immediate and meaningful climate action. But the bad news is that most people have still barely noticed that the world leaders who can actually take the actions needed will be in our own backyard.”

Dr Joel Rogers de Waal, academic director of YouGov, said: “The good news for COP26 organisers is that in every country surveyed, the vast majority are on board with the programme, at least in principle. In each national sample, most agreed that climate change is a genuine phenomenon and a considerable concern, and rejected the idea that its seriousness is being exaggerated.”

There was considerable support for rewilding, with 70 per cent support in Britain and 79 per cent in Spain for programmes to restore parts of the country to their natural state.

But generally attitudes towards environmental action at the policy level are a mixed bag. In nearly every country, large portions support the policy of greatly expanding government investment in renewable energy, such as solar, wind and tidal power, including in Britain (66 per cent), Germany (52 per cent), Denmark (65 per cent), Sweden (47 per cent), Spain (74 per cent) and Italy (69 per cent). Only France was an outlier in this respect, where just 24 per cent said the same.

But in other areas, public support is tentative and variable, such as bans on the sale of petrol or diesel cars and vans, or a frequent flyer tax.

However, when it comes to making lifestyle changes, participants were less enthusiastic. Despite the clear environmental benefits of eating less meat, all seven countries showed majorities who eat meat at least several times a week.

Within the meat-eating section of respondents, only a small proportion claimed to have reduced their meat consumption over the past 12 months, and of those, generally around half or under had done so for environmental reasons.

Extinction Rebellion’s Rebel for Life campaign
Extinction Rebellion’s Rebel for Life campaign

Meanwhile, additional polling for the project at the start of September asked British voters two questions about the methods and message of Extinction Rebellion.

More than half (53 per cent) said the methods used by the protest group generally go too far, with only 10 per cent saying they got the balance about right, while seven per cent said they did not go far enough.

Only 38 per cent thought the environmental warnings of Extinction Rebellion generally overstate the situation, while a combined 41 per cent said that they describe the situation as about right (32 per cent) or even understate it (nine per cent.

“The most powerful protest movements are those that ultimately manage to inspire and co-opt the wider population, creating a sense of social momentum that becomes impossible for the political centre to ignore,” said Dr de Waal. “By contrast, acts of civic vandalism that specifically target the basic necessities of daily life are more likely to do the opposite, since by infuriating the public, they only make it easier for governments to ignore the message behind the action.”

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