4 August 2021

It’s not fair for the poor to shoulder the cost of Net Zero – the middle classes must step up

By Daisy Powell-Chandler

It is time for the middle classes to step up, and electric vehicles are the most pleasant way to get started.

Up-front costs may still be high if you’re buying new, but my resident’s parking permit costs £32, I don’t pay the London congestion charge and filling the ‘tank’ costs just £9 – on the few occasions that I pay, because our car subscription includes quite a few charging networks for free.

What’s the catch? Every 150 miles or so we have to stop for 20 to 30 minutes to charge the car. And as anyone with small kids will tell you, the chances you aren’t stopping every 150 miles or so anyway are pretty slim, what with the loo stops and snack breaks and the need to run off some energy so that parents don’t go insane.

Yes, it would be nice if there were more charging stations and more of them were like the delightful vineyard, café and playground that I charged at in Devon the other day. Yes, it would be lovely if any car could charge at the Tesla points that seem to be the only charge for miles around in some parts of the country. I’d especially have liked not spending 10 minutes in the baking sun swearing ineffectually at a charger in a Morrison’s carpark before giving up.

These problems are surmountable – the Government has committed resources to increase charge point numbers and I’m very much hoping that someone more web-literate than me will start a review site that flags up chargers in beautiful locations or next to great food.

But until then, here’s the brutal truth: the middle classes are going to have to lead the next “charge” towards net zero. The Government has radically decarbonised our electricity grid over the past decade, reducing the country’s greenhouse gas emissions by half. That was the easy bit. The next steps involve the public having to change their behaviour and purchasing decisions. Some of those adjustments will alter our diets and homes, our commutes, even the make-up of our economy.

Our recent polling on the topic shows that understanding of net zero is not evenly spread: half (47%) of the AB (professional) social group are confident explaining the phrase ‘net zero’ to a stranger. That drops to a quarter (25%) among social grades D and E. A fifth of that group say they have never heard the term before.

As well as awareness, the professional classes simply have more money, and while the “green premium” on net zero-compliant goods is dropping, it still exists. Public debate over the next decade will no doubt focus on how to ensure the transition is fair, but it doesn’t take a decade of discussion to realise that it is decidedly unfair to expect less affluent Britons to be in the vanguard.

This, now, is the moment when the middle classes need to step up and be counted. And if the burden they must bear in order to do that is 20 minutes drinking a cup of tea and watching their kids on the swings, few people will weep for them.

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Daisy Powell-Chandler is Head of Energy and Environment at Public First.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.