Emily Carver is Media Manager at the Institute of Economic Affairs
The Government’s Net Zero strategy is unravelling from the inside out. Last week, it was reported that the Prime Minister – who seems increasingly to be governing by U-turn – may push back the ban on gas boilers, due to growing backlash over the cost of reducing our emissions.
This week, Number 10’s climate change spokesperson Allegra Stratton said she didn’t “fancy” buying an electric car, and would continue driving her diesel, only days after having called on the public to go “One Step Greener” by, among other “micro-steps”, walking to the shops instead of driving.
This is just a snapshot of the inconsistency of the Government’s green messaging. Why should a household invest in green technology, only for the policy to be reversed or delayed? Who would bother scrapping their diesel or petrol vehicle, when the public face of COP26 has decided herself not to go electric?
Of course, when polled, the majority of the public support addressing climate change. Who wouldn’t want a greener, more sustainable planet? However, as is the case with so many policies, it is far easier to support a rosy abstract goal than it is to face its real-life consequences.
The green agenda is no doubt important – not least for our own quality of life – but, as many have warned, arbitrary targets set by ministers lead to poor – and often frenzied – policies. Fundamentally, the plans rely on the false assumption that ministers and bureaucrats are best placed to pick winners when it comes to technology and the future of energy. Successive governments have shown this manifestly not to be the case.
Further, the idea that we must reach “Net Zero” is in itself a misguided aim, lending itself to an “at all costs” strategy, much like those who back a “Zero-Covid” strategy. This is what has led to an over-reliance on heavy-handed prohibitions – such as the ban on sales of petrol and diesel cars – rather than the use of price incentives.
For politicians, there is little in the way of accountability. Setting a target for three decades in the future is illusory, lending itself to virtue-signalling and ill-thought-out measures. Fundamentally, it overestimates the Government’s ability to plan ahead. Who could possibly believe that officials would be able to predict the state of the energy sector in three decades? It would be far preferable for the Government to set a price for carbon, adopt a technology-neutral approach, and allow technologies to compete.
It is concerning that ministers continue to use the language of “crisis” and “emergency” when discussing climate change. As we’ve seen over the course of the pandemic, this kind of rhetoric has been deployed when justifying government by decree, lockdown measures and prohibitions. Could it be that the same could be used on the basis that we face a climate emergency? Perhaps the lunatic idea that we might lockdown to protect the planet isn’t as farfetched as it sounds.
However, as the costs of Net Zero become more widely known, it is likely that those who have up till now acquiesced with the Government’s plans will begin to make their voices heard – particularly at a time when inflation and tax hikes are on the horizon. Even the broadcast media, which has been overwhelmingly supportive of Net Zero, is beginning to raise questions about – and publicise – the cost of the Government’s proposals.
This month, the Office for Budget Responsibility has estimated the total cost of reaching Net Zero by 2050 could reach £1.4 trillion. Lord Lawson has predicted the true cost could be twice this. The Government’s infrastructure adviser has said that families will have to pay up to £400 more a year for food, gods and travel to allow polluting industries to capture their carbon emissions. It is likely that this will also be an underestimation.
It is often argued that despite the fact Britain accounts for a tiny proportion of the world’s carbon emissions we must set an example for other countries to follow. Sure, this may be admirable – and we should do so to some extent – but when China and India are industrialising at the rate of knots, expanding their coalmine capacity year on year, it becomes harder to defend the Government’s arbitrary targets. If the aim is to drive down global temperatures, our efforts will appear to an increasing number of people as little more than an act of economic self-harm.
It has been argued that the Government should be honest about the costs of Net Zero and the impact it will have on our lives. As the media catches on, politicians and the green lobby can no longer shield the truth from the public. People are unlikely to take kindly to a dramatic, government-imposed reduction in their living standards and hikes to their cost of living. Any Net Zero policy that doesn’t command the support of the public is doomed to failure.