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Flooded UK countryside road
© northallertonman/Shutterstock
30 April 2015 13:15

What the UK public thinks about climate change and energy – in seven charts

Roz Pidcock


Roz Pidcock

30.04.2015 | 1:15pm
Public opinionWhat the UK public thinks about climate change and energy – in seven charts

Each year in March, the UK government’s Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) carries out a nationwide poll, asking people for their opinions on climate change and how the UK gets its energy. The 2015  results are in.

The poll started in March 2012, so there are only four years of data to compare. But there are some noteworthy things about the way the British public perceives renewable energy, fracking and carbon capture and storage.

Here are seven Carbon Brief charts, highlighting some interesting patterns in DECC’s data:

1. Climate change drops down list of top challenges, but concern remains high

The percentage of people ranking climate change as one of the top-three issues facing Britain dropped to 15% in 2015, compared to 22% last year (thick green line below). Five per cent of people put climate change top of the list – above the NHS, unemployment, crime and education, for example – compared to 8% last year (thin green line).Tracker _Challenges

Why the drop? Other nationwide polls show a peak in public awareness and concern about climate change in 2014, too. Researchers have attributed this boost largely to the severe flooding parts of the country experienced in the winter of 2013/2014.

The drop in the proportion of people ranking climate change as a top-three priority in 2015 could signal a return to pre-flooding levels. The figure is now similar to that seen in 2013, which is still a fair bit higher than than when the question was first asked in 2012.

The proportion of people who place energy supply in their top-three concerns shows a similar pattern to climate change, but more pronounced. Levels peak in 2014 with 31% and drop to 20% in 2015 (thick blue line). This year, 3% of people ranked energy supply as the top challenge facing the UK, compared to 8% last year (thin blue line).

Despite differences ranking which issues should take priority over others, public concern about climate change remains high. Two-thirds of respondents (66%) in the March 2015 poll reported feeling very or fairly concerned about climate change, a figure that remains largely unchanged in the last four years.

2. Awareness of human activity as a driver of climate change is growing

The proportion of people who attribute climate change mainly or entirely to human activity rose to 40% in March 2015, up from 35% last year.

However, the 2014 result marked a drop compared to the previous two years (38%). So, the total increase in those identifying human activity as the driver of climate change is a fairly modest 2% over the tracker period (red line).

Tracker _causes

Twelve per cent of respondents said climate change was mainly or entirely due to natural causes (blue bars). This is down from when the question was first asked in 2012 (15%), but the proportion has fluctuated a little in the intervening years (12% in 2013, 13% in 2014).

The largest proportion of respondents (42%) said they thought climate change is caused by a mixture of natural and human causes (orange line). This is down 5% from 2014, but on a par with previous years. In all years, 3-4% think there is no such thing as climate change.

The latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says it’s extremely likely more than half of the warming since 1951 is due to human activity. The scientists’ best estimate is that the human contribution is closer to 100%. Natural influences, such as solar energy and volcanic eruptions have made only a small contribution.

3. Public support for renewables remains high

In March 2015, 78% of respondents said they support or strongly support the use of renewable energy to provide the UK’s electricity (red and blue slices below), compared to 5% who oppose it (green and purple slices). Support has remained high and largely unchanged in the last four years, fluctuating between 78 and 82% since the 2012 poll.

Renewables opinion tracker

Consistent with previous years, 71% of people asked believe renewable energy provides economic benefits to the UK. 55% would be happy to have a large-scale renewable energy development in their area. This is down from 59% in 2014, but similar to 2012 and 2013.

4. Solar is the nation’s favourite renewable energy source

Solar is the British public’s renewable energy source of choice, with 85% of respondents in 2015 saying they support or very strongly support the technology (orange line below).

Wave and tidal energy (blue line) comes in second favourite with 74% of people expressing support or strong support, just above offshore wind (red line; 73%).Tracker _Support

Wave and tidal energy and offshore wind both saw slight drops in support in 2015 compared to last year’s peaks, though onshore wind shows greater fluctuation over the past four years.

Onshore wind also saw a drop in support in 2015 compared to previous years (purple line), and at 65% it is lower than when the question was first asked in 2012. It’s notable that all renewable sources continue to draw more than 60% public support, however.

Biomass is the least popular renewable energy source, yet still receives 63% support (green line). After dropping a few percent in 2014, support for biomass has returned to 2012 and 2013 levels.

5. Support for nuclear holds steady, biggest proportion of people are undecided

The number of people who think nuclear energy will help combat climate change has remained fairly steady in the last four years, fluctuating between 34 and 36% (blue bars).

The proportion of people who don’t think nuclear is a viable option to tackle climate change (red bars) has remained exactly the same since 2012 (23%). The biggest proportion of respondents in all years (41-43%) don’t know or hold no strong opinion (orange bars).

Tracker _Nuclear

The proportion of people who think nuclear provides a reliable source of affordable energy and those who think it could generate economic benefits both dropped 5% in 2015 compared to last year, returning to levels when the questiosn were first asked in 2012.

6. Awareness of CCS is growing, but support is dropping

Polling at 38%, awareness of carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology (blue bars below) is slightly higher than when the question was first asked in 2012 (36%). The figure has dropped slightly since the intervening years, however (41% in 2013 and 40% in 2014).

Fewer people support the use of CCS compared to previous years. Fifty-two per cent of respondents in 2015 said they support or strongly support CCS compared to 57% in 2013 and 2014 (red bars). The question wasn’t asked in 2012.

CCS opinion tracker

Slightly fewer people oppose CCS in 2015 (6%) than in previous years (7-8%), with those who neither support nor oppose, and those who don’t know, taking up the slack (green bars).

7. More people oppose fracking for shale gas than support it

Awareness of the process of fracking for shale gas is growing. Fewer than half of respondents had heard of fracking when the question was first asked in June 2012, rising to 52% in March the following year. Awareness since then has remained around 70-75%, reaching a peak of 76% in September 2014 (blue bars below).Tracker _fracking

(Note: Questions about awareness of fracking weren’t asked in the original March 2012 poll and those gauging levels of support or opposition didn’t feature in the March 2013 poll either. Since there is less annual data to compare, we’ve plotted available data from three shorter Decc surveys carried out in June, September and December of each year.)

Despite growing awareness, almost half (49%) of respondents in 2015 hold no strong position on fracking, saying they neither support nor oppose it, or that they don’t know.

The results show support for fracking fell from 27% when the question was first asked in Dec 2013 to 24% in March 2015, though it has fluctuated a fair bit in between (red line).

The proportion of people who oppose fracking has increased from 21% to 26% over the same period (orange line). 2014 saw a rise in support and opposition to fracking compared to the previous year.

Image: Flooded UK countryside road.

Note: Data for the figures comes from the DECC public attitudes tracking survey. Annual surveys were carried out in March between 2011 and 2015 using face-to-face interviews with a representative sample of 1,981 UK households. You can find the full dataset, here.

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