Climate promises must be linked to better standard of living

Policymakers have to signal green costs are worthwhile for hard-pressed public

The two weeks of Cop26 are coming to a close. International agreements aimed at slowing global warming are in place but politicians still have to figure out how to make the changes in individual behaviour these plans mandate less expensive and more palatable to their citizens.

It will not be easy. A recent Kantar Public Survey conducted in 10 countries showed that while most people recognised the importance of confronting the climate crisis, the majority said they could not afford to make the necessary changes in their lifestyles. They said they required more resources and equipment from their governments in order to make the changes.

A recent survey in Ireland (funded by Tasc and the Foundation for European Progressive Studies) found that addressing climate change and protecting the environment are far less of a priority for the majority of voters than better healthcare and housing or reducing homelessness and crime.

An Irish Times Ipsos/MRBI poll in October found a high degree of public resistance to many potential climate action measures. It was especially the case with measures which would entail increased costs for individuals. Asked if they would personally support various measures, people’s resistance was highest to those measures which would directly affect people’s standard of living.


If households are reluctant to change their behaviour, largely because of the economic impact on their standard of living , it does not bode well for the promises being made at Cop26 or the ambitious “Green Deals” previously announced by the US and EU, not to mention Ireland’s Climate Action Plan.

Implementing climate policy... without being fully attuned to the impact on the standard of living of voters will diminish public trust in policymakers

These plans all highlight investment in renewable energy, recycling, transport, retrofitting and energy efficiency, biodiversity and relevant training. However, the gains from these policies are invariably too vague and far-off to justify the costs involved for households already struggling to make ends meet.

Even those households able to absorb the impact of the measures may not perceive any tangible benefit from doing so. The Climate Action Plan aims to insulate 500,000 homes by 2030 at a cost of €28 billion, or €56,000 per home. The Government has committed €8.7 billion towards retrofitting houses with insulation. The grants are targeted in particular at low-income families otherwise unable to afford retrofitting.

But middle-income families will probably not benefit enough from the investment in retrofitting to make it worth their while. Similarly, landlords may decide not to pay for expensive materials and labour costs when it’s the tenants receiving the energy bills .

The problem is being further complicated by the rising cost of living, globally as well as here in Ireland. Over the past 12 months, prices here have risen by 5.1 per cent, according to the latest consumer price index from the Central Statistics Office (CSO) – the largest increase recorded in 14 years. Increasing fuel and electricity costs are driving up energy bills, weighing further on families who may already be struggling because of the economic fallout of the pandemic.

How then can the Irish and other governments resolve the contradiction of needing households to spend money on retrofitting or electric cars to meet emissions targets when it’s difficult for those same households just to stay afloat?

There is a political imperative for them to find a solution. The consequence of implementing climate policy – especially punitive measures like a carbon tax and culling cattle herds – without being fully attuned to the impact on the standard of living of voters will diminish public trust in the policymakers themselves.

Declining trust in policymaking, as we have witnessed far too much over the past five years, boosts the appeal of “outsider” populist politicians. They will deny the scale of climate destruction while calling for job creation and economic growth to supersede any climate action. TD Michael Healy-Rae went some of the way down this road when he accused the Green Party last week of knowing “nothing about job creation, nothing about work, nothing about how the country keeps rolling”.

The Government could highlight the climate and health benefits of shopping locally for food while providing financial incentives for local food shops

American senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia has used the same argument, blocking President Joe Biden’s climate change legislation because of his state’s economic reliance on coal mining.

Policymakers have to show the public how climate change initiatives can lead to a better quality of life and higher standards of living. Doing so would entail dramatically expanding public knowledge of how climate change exacerbates daily financial strains; the very issues that people are prioritising such as paying for health conditions related to issues like pollution and diet or rising energy bills because of poor insulation and prolonged weather events like storms.

The approach also means prioritising investments in areas like community health, which have a direct impact on individuals and their families. The Government could highlight the climate and health benefits of shopping locally for food while providing financial incentives for local food shops, especially in neighbourhoods of high deprivation, to offer a healthy, affordable selection. Pursuing one of the objectives of the EU Green Deal, the Government could support the development and delivery of local training programmes in recycling computers, clothes, appliances and other goods to create jobs and lower costs.

These may seem like minor measures in comparison to the lofty discussions in Glasgow, but they offer visible, concrete and practical evidence of the relationship between a better life and climate action.

Shana Cohen is the director of Tasc, the think tank for social change