Rishi Sunak has said that the UK Government’s decision to release 100 new licences for companies to drill for oil and gas in the North Sea is “entirely consistent” with the transition to net zero.

According to Sunak, the policy is a triple win – good for energy security, good for jobs and good for the climate, in that the UK will continue to need some oil and gas even after 2050, and producing gas domestically has a lower carbon footprint than importing it does.

Environmental groups, opposition politicians, and some within Sunak’s own party are unconvinced. Scotland’s First Minister Humza Yousaf has condemned the move, saying it showed the Prime Minister is “willing to recklessly gamble the future of our planet for cheap political gain”.

READ MORE: Poll finds Scots in favour of more north sea oil drilling

Meanwhile, Conservative MP Chris Skidmore criticised the decision as “on the wrong side of a future economy… on the wrong side of modern voters… [and] on the wrong side of history”.

What do ‘modern voters’ themselves think of Sunak’s policy – and of net zero policies more widely? The Scottish public are aware of the tensions between energy security, economic benefit and sustainability that the policy involves.

Half of those polled by Ipsos in August think the decision to release 100 new drilling licences will have a positive impact on reducing the UK’s dependence on other countries for energy, while just 11% say it will have a negative impact.

The Herald:

When it comes to economic benefits, more than four in ten expect the policy to have a positive impact both for Scotland’s economy and for the UK economy. The decision is seen as more damaging for sustainability, however, with more of the public expecting it to have a negative impact on Scotland’s and the UK’s abilities to meet carbon reduction targets than expect a positive impact.

What is clear is that Scottish voters are very far from unified in their views on whether Sunak’s policy gets the trade-off between these different priorities right. The Scottish public are a little more likely to oppose re-starting or increasing the UK’s own production of fossil fuels, compared with their neighbours south of the border. However, there are stark divisions by political affiliation.

While Conservative voters are more likely to support the UK restarting or increasing fossil fuel production than to oppose it, Labour voters are more split, and SNP supporters are more likely to oppose this policy.

READ MORE: Humza Yousaf urged to 'get off the fence' and oppose Rosebank oil plan

The biggest issue on the public’s mind at the present time, though, is affordability. Ipsos’ latest Issues Index finds that inflation, rising prices and the economy are currently seen as the most important issues facing the country. In this context, addressing cost concerns is an imperative for politicians when communicating with the public about net zero policies.

Support for net zero policies tends to be lower among people who are struggling more with the cost of living than it is among those who are living comfortably or coping on their current income.

The public are also more likely to support incentives that help them make changes to their lifestyles, such as making public transport easier to use, than they are penalties, such as congestion charging in cities.

When it comes to the future of energy, these new findings highlight that while tackling climate change is important to the public, so too are affordability and energy security. With the next General Election looming in 2024, balancing these concerns will be key to politicians’ ability to take the public with them on net zero policies.

Dr Emily Gray is Managing Director, Scotland of polling company Ipsos