Rachel Wolf is a partner in Public First. She had co-charge of the 2019 Conservative Manifesto. She was an education and innovation adviser at Number 10 during David Cameron’s premiership and was founding director of the New Schools Network.
At the end of the 18th Century, Thomas Malthus predicted doom for mankind. His theory was that as populations grew, the food would run out, and only by having fewer children would we survive. Malthus understood society pre-industrial revolution: subsistence living was common, and the supply of land was finite.
Malthus was wrong, or at least for 200 years, because humans changed the game. The innovators behind the industrial revolution – begun in Britain – discovered how to harness new forms of energy (fossil fuels) to monumentally increase our output and our wealth. From this has come the global rise in life expectancy, living standards, and social mobility of the last two centuries.
Now, we need to find a way of substituting those forms of energy or removing their effects from the atmosphere. The Government has committed to ‘net zero’ greenhouse gas emissions because it does not want the side effects of the energy sources we have used for centuries to destroy the planet. At the same time, we do not want to return to an era where children (and their mothers) regularly died, and where the majority of people lived in what would now in the UK be considered wholly unacceptable poverty.
This is a staggering challenge. Much, much bigger than Brexit. And yet the public debate is, relatively, non-existent.
The UK is the first country to enshrine in law reaching “net zero greenhouse gas emissions” by 2050. In other words we don’t want the total amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere to go up from 2050, but we don’t mind if that’s because we’re releasing less, or if we’re capturing and storing what’s already out there.
For example, the steel industry could, in principle, change the way it makes steel. But we can’t, yet, produce steel at scale without fossil fuels (it’s a lot harder to solve than producing electricity for our homes). An alternative is to ‘capture’ the emissions. The problem is, we don’t know how to do that at scale yet either. Many of the technologies are immature at best, and time is ticking. Nuclear might be used more, but it won’t be the entire solution.
At the same time, the UK is not the planet – and one of the problems with counting ‘net’ emissions is that we increasingly import goods whose environmental impact is not accounted for. If we shut down all the industry in the country by imposing costs not borne by international competitors, we can make it look as though our emissions have gone down, whilst continuing to import higher carbon products from elsewhere. In this scenario, the planet is no better off. In fact it might be worse, and in the meantime we are much poorer.
On the other hand, if the entire world is going the same way as the UK – and an increasing number of countries are committing to net zero emissions – being the first mover could give us technological expertise that leads to substantial exports in their own right, and help drive action across the globe.
This is, to climate and energy experts, a ludicrously simplified description of what the Government is trying to achieve. It is also many steps more complicated than the current conversation with the public. This policy area – which has pervasive, dramatic consequences – is either operating in a world of acronyms among experts or simplistic student protests.
Nor are we fully discussing the different options. I’m currently working on a commission that is exploring how carbon pricing could help the transition to net zero. There are two major potential advantages of this approach. First, it avoids government picking winners and lets companies decide how to reduce emissions. Second, the money can be given back to individuals and industries. This is why Republicans in the US, for example, are increasingly in favour of such a policy.
As part of this process we’ve done a large amount of recent research into net zero. Unsurprisingly, the public have no idea what it really means, or how it might change their life. They frequently mix it up with other government commitments like plastics. They care about the environment, but no one has begun to explain the changes in their lifestyle that might be required to reach net zero in the next 30 years. They already think they pay a lot of tax, and are currently unprepared to pay lots more for the environment. Unless we get this right – and develop solutions that can mitigate the cost – the situation is ripe for a new UKIP-style party to whip up hostility (as the gilets jaunes in France show).
Rather than discuss this, we have spent much of the last few days talking whether Claire Perry O’Neill was rude to a civil servant about a taxi or not – and if the Government was sufficiently clear about why, exactly, they didn’t want her to chair a climate conference. Net zero is an issue that – far beyond Brexit – is going to affect the voters in our new seats: their lives, and their jobs. We all need to start talking properly to them about it.