How eco war became the new class war

·7-min read
Lower-income and other disadvantaged groups contribute least to causing climate change but are likely to be most negatively affected by it
Lower-income and other disadvantaged groups contribute least to causing climate change but are likely to be most negatively affected by it

Among the hundreds of commuters caught up in the travel chaos on the M25 caused by the eco-protest group Insulate Britain was a self-employed insulation fitter called Tom Watson. As he sat in his van, growing increasingly irate, the irony of the situation dawned on him.

Watson decided to confront the protestors and tell them they were preventing him from doing precisely the thing they were calling for. But, as he marched towards the activists, police officers demanded he get back in his vehicle while allowing the protesters to continue their blockade.

“I just wanted to tell them: ‘Don’t stop me getting to work and doing my job’,” Watson told The Sun. “They’re called Insulate Britain. Well, insulating homes is what I do. How does stopping me doing that job help the environment?”

He estimated that being caught up in the disruption likely cost him hundreds of pounds in lost earnings, and the same would be true for other tradesmen that were trying to get to work. “We all want to do the right thing by the environment, but stopping workers fitting insulation ain’t it,” he added.

The incident highlighted the extent to which the methods of some eco-protestors is undermining their message. Insulate Britain – an offshoot of Extinction Rebellion – has blocked the M25 on five occasions in a bid to put pressure on the Government to pay for all social housing to be fully insulated. The protests have been blamed for causing a crash on the motorway, and a woman suffered a stroke while caught up in the delays and is now paralysed.

But it also shows the extent to which the climate battle seems to be opening up a new front in Britain’s long-running class war. Richard Hoggart, the British sociologist, once wrote: “Class distinctions do not die; they merely learn new ways of expressing themselves. Each decade we shiftily declare we have buried class; each decade, the coffin stays empty.”

Protestors from Insulate Britain block the M25 motorway near Cobham in Surrey - Getty
Protestors from Insulate Britain block the M25 motorway near Cobham in Surrey - Getty

Today, the distinctions are being expressed through the green movement, with well-meaning middle-class activists appearing to tell those on lower incomes how to live their lives.

At the upcoming COP26 climate change conference in Glasgow, the Government will ask countries to phase out their use of coal. However, there are two separate dates for this to happen: 2030 for the developed world, and 2040 for developing countries. It is an acknowledgement that western countries grew rich by burning fossil fuels and can’t, in all good conscience, now pull up the ladder behind them by asking poorer countries to enact green policies that condemn their populations to perpetual penury.

But where is this sense of fairness on the home front? The more extreme climate activists critique economic growth, saying it will inevitably burn up the Earth’s finite resources. However, zero or even negative GDP growth – which first gained traction with the middle classes during the birth of the green movement in the 1970s – would almost certainly result in the less well off having to make do with less. What’s more, economic growth provides the best impetus for the kind of technical innovations needed to address climate change.

You could argue that there is at least a tacit realisation of the conundrum in the Government’s decisions to freeze fuel duty while also banning the sale of petrol and diesel cars and vans from 2030. At some point such contradictions will need to be met head on.

It is, truth be told, a fiendishly difficult circle to square. Lower-income and other disadvantaged groups contribute least to causing climate change but are likely to be most negatively affected by it, according to the Centre for Sustainable Energy. What’s more, these groups pay the most, as a proportion of their income, towards implementing certain policy responses and yet benefit the least.

Going green is expensive. A single energy-saving light bulb can cost £6.89. This is more than 9 per cent of the weekly job seeker’s allowance for someone aged 25 or over; nearly 12 per cent for those aged up to 24. That purchase may well be worth it, but you’ve got to have the money in the first place to make savings in the long run.

One of the fiercest battlegrounds for the green class war are the low traffic neighbourhoods (LTNs) springing up in British cities. The idea is a nice one: to create areas – which fans have dubbed “mini-Hollands” – where traffic is restricted on through roads.

Who wouldn’t want to go a bit Dutch so that children can play in the streets, pollution and traffic noise is reduced and there are fewer accidents? But critics claim such benefits mostly accrue to middle-class, white-collar residents who use public transport to commute to their office jobs. Meanwhile, the LTNs create bottlenecks that infuriate white van tradespeople and taxi drivers.

A bus gate that’s been installed on Church Street in Stoke Newington, north London – which only allows buses, Blue Badge holders, emergency vehicles and cyclists to pass through between 7am and 7pm each day – has sparked particular fury.

Aaron Fenton-Hewitt, a 25-year-old part-time teaching assistant who has been a Stoke Newington resident all his life, says: “It’s about class – it tends to affect the more vulnerable and at risk. My family say this could kill off [their finances] coming out of the pandemic. The people pushing it won’t be the ones paying for lost revenue as a result of it.”

Gurveer Singh, a self-employed courier, describes the LTNs as “ridiculous”. He says he used to finish his job in five hours. Now it takes eight or nine, but earns him the same money. He can no longer attend one postcode “because of the road closures”, which means he’s “losing £40 or £50 every day”. In addition, Singh has had to upgrade his vehicle to the tune of thousands of pounds, due to the expansion of the Ultra Low Emission Zones, despite feeling his “previous van was perfectly fine”.

Low traffic neighbourhoods have caused outrage among frustrated residents - Geoff Pugh for The Telegraph
Low traffic neighbourhoods have caused outrage among frustrated residents - Geoff Pugh for The Telegraph

Louise Glazebrook, the owner of the Darling Dog Company, says: “It feels as if these rules have been created by people who sit in an office all day and don’t understand.” She works across London and has no idea how she’ll get to jobs without a car, as well as having safety concerns about travelling home at night.

Mete Coban, a 29-year-old Labour councillor in Hackney who introduced the measures, and who has been defending them in discussion groups, points out that 10,000 cars were using Church Street every day, and that 7 per cent of deaths among the over-30s in his borough are caused by particle pollution: “Not taking action is not an option.”

But Rob Horton, who lives opposite a LTN in Birmingham, believes the scheme isn’t even reducing traffic, just shifting it to different parts of the city. “When I get home, there is queuing traffic outside my house when there used to be none. At peak times and weekends, we can smell fumes.”

Other green policies are likely to further inflame tensions. The UK’s Climate Change Committee has suggested that the Government needs to phase out gas boilers, introduce carbon taxes on waste, and install 150,000 public charge points for electric vehicles by 2025. All of this spells expense, effort and disruption for normal working people. And that’s just three of its 200 recommendations. The general public is unlikely to be consulted on any of them.

None of this is to say that climate change is not important to many voters. A recent YouGov poll showed that Britons believe the environment is the third biggest issue facing the UK.

Ted Christie-Miller, a senior researcher at Onward who has conducted focus groups in the North and Scotland, says he’s found that voters are largely supportive of the Government’s climate change targets, especially as they think green jobs are likely to be better paid than their current jobs. But he adds that the Government “needs to have progressive climate policies, which ensure low income households do not bear the brunt of these costs”.

Few things are as quintessentially British as the class system and talking about the weather. It seems we have now contrived a way to combine two of our ruling passions.

Additional reporting by Helen Chandler-Wilde

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