Even before the government this week announced a legally binding target to cut greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050, the Tory leadership contenders were competing fiercely to establish their green credentials.
Andrea Leadsom has vowed to declare a ‘climate emergency’. Rory Stewart has upgraded it to a ‘climate cataclysm’ and wants to double the amount of foreign aid spent on climate change. Sajid Javid says he would treat fighting climate change like fighting terrorism. Even Boris Johnson, who once called wind turbines a ‘hideous Venusian invasion’, has leapt on the 100 per cent carbon-free bandwagon, marvelling earlier this week about wind farms and solar panels. While the leadership hopefuls argue over Brexit, they seem to be falling over themselves to say the same thing on climate — only louder than their rivals.
It is easy to understand the pressure on political leaders, given the changing public mood. David Attenborough’s recent documentary and Greta Thunberg’s visit were both well-received and a panicked Tory party has decided it’s better to ride the green wave than to be crushed by it. But it is easy to cry crisis and preach doom; rather more difficult to devise a policy response which tackles climate change but avoids triggering the kind of backlash Emmanuel Macron has seen in France, where the gilets jaunes movement erupted in reaction to his fuel tax hike and he was forced to climb down.
It’s not just the Tories who are tying themselves in green knots. Last week, the Welsh economy minister, Labour’s Ken Skates, said he was ‘absolutely livid’ that Ford is to close its engine plant in Bridgend. Yet only six weeks ago Skates’s own Welsh Labour administration had grandly declared a ‘climate change emergency’. It can’t seem to connect the two things: that if you are going to prioritise rapid decarbonisation, you shouldn’t be surprised if fewer people want to buy cars and engine plants start closing down. It is all very well hoping that investment in alleviating climate change will help create ‘green jobs’ — as any job not connected to fossil fuel extraction or use tends to get called nowadays. But such jobs do not automatically spring up in the right places, or in the right numbers, to replace traditional industrial jobs.
The one senior minister who has recognised that a target of eliminating greenhouse gas emissions will have huge costs isn’t standing to be prime minister. Last week, Philip Hammond wrote a letter to No. 10 — leaked to the Financial Times — that spells it out: £1 trillion. Moreover, whole sectors of industry would be unsustainable without public subsidy, as the cost of decarbonisation becomes prohibitively expensive, especially while other countries continue to allow themselves to burn fossil fuels. Yet his government will now force through the 2050 target by statutory instrument, committing itself to spending billions, and potentially forcing massive changes to the lifestyles of Britons, without proper parliamentary debate
Just a few years ago, it was widely accepted among Conservatives that the climate was warming, but they were careful not to inflict too much harm on the economy in response. Even David Cameron, who set out to detoxify the Tory brand by being filmed with huskies in the Arctic, took to calling carbon taxes ‘green crap’ when he saw they were driving up energy bills. The Conservative party seemed a natural home for those seeking a balanced approach to the climate debate. No longer. When did you last hear a Tory MP suggesting caution, or saying that the proposed solutions might be a bit over the top?
This leadership contest marks an important development. Even hard Brexiteers are becoming environmental activists. And parliament is based on the notion of opposition: that any government idea will be scrutinised with great vigour. If this opposition is not supplied, policies might be adopted with massive flaws in them, and important questions (like cost vs benefit) might not be asked.
To give the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) its due, it has recognised there will be a huge cost to achieving net zero emissions by 2050. It says that this will cost between 1 and 2 per cent of GDP —and with the UK’s GDP currently at £2 trillion that implies a cost of between £20 billion and £40 billion a year.
As Hammond’s letter reveals, though, government officials believe even this estimate is too low: he thinks the real figure will be closer to £70 billion per year. That’s an HS2 every year for the next 30 years. And as with HS2 it is probably safe to assume that even this bill will rise. (But don’t expect to see this costing anywhere on a Matt Hancock leadership manifesto.)
Many estimates of the costs of eliminating carbon emissions rely on technology that hasn’t yet been fully developed. Carbon capture and storage, for example, is essential if we are to achieve net zero greenhouse gas emissions. It can remove carbon dioxide produced by industrial processes which will be very hard to get to zero emissions, such as cement-making and aviation. It has been made to work in demonstration plants. But the reason it is not yet in widespread commercial use is that it is so expensive. A German analysis of carbon capture and storage plants in 2014 calculated that a gas plant fitted with this technology costs 26 per cent more to operate than one without. For a coal plant, the extra cost is 80 per cent.
These costs might, of course, come down as the technology improves. Then again, they might not. There are many technologies that pleasantly surprise us by how they fall in price — wind turbines and solar panels included — but history is littered with technologies that never made the grade. In the 1970s, an article such as this might assume the potential of nuclear fusion to answer all our energy worries. Yet, in spite of the many billions spend on research, nuclear fusion is still nowhere near being deployed commercially.
It’s not clear, either, that anyone in any political party is thinking about another problem with these targets. The UK economy, in a rush to meet a 2050 deadline, might move so far ahead of the rest of the world in reducing emissions that we simply export our heavy industry — and the jobs that go with it. Dieter Helm, professor of energy policy at Oxford, puts it well. We could slash our carbon emissions tomorrow, he says, by closing down the rest of British Steel, the car industry and Ineos’s Grangemouth oil refinery. This would even show up, initially, as having come at zero cost to the government. Yet it would cause grave economic damage for no net benefit to the world.
In any case, a more honest way to measure emissions is by factoring in imports, taking into account the greenhouse gases emitted all over the world in the cause of providing goods and services for UK citizens. On this measure, emissions attributable to UK consumers have fallen by only around a tenth since 1990 — a quarter of the rate which the government claims for emissions in the UK itself. A lot of heavy industry has simply relocated abroad, some of it because of carbon taxes. The risk is that we have bad policy that destroys jobs and is of precious little use to the planet, but politicians are too keen on greenwashing themselves to notice or admit what’s going on.
It’s becoming harder than ever to ask questions, as the national mood moves towards mass panic. The Guardian has taken aim at the very phrase ‘climate change’, saying ‘the preferred terms “climate emergency, crisis or breakdown” more accurately describe the environmental crises facing the world’. Forget about dispassionate reporting or impartiality. The BBC is not much more objective on the subject.
So don’t be surprised if, in the environmental debates you read and hear, no one points out that the UK is responsible for just 1 per cent of global emissions. Unless the rest of the world follows smartly behind us — which it shows little sign of doing — our expensive policies will make barely a dent in the planet’s predicament.
Take the current debate about British Steel: whether it should be saved or allowed to go to the wall. In her visit, Greta Thunberg chastised Britain for giving permission for a new coal mine. Coal is quite rightly being phased out of electricity generation, but we still need it because it is a fundamental ingredient of the steel-making process — indeed, around a sixth of world coal production is used for this purpose. And without steel, we can’t have wind turbines or solar farms.
The target of eliminating greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 might just turn out to be achievable (unlike Extinction Rebellion’s fantastical demand that we reach the same goal in six years). Perhaps new technologies will creep up in the next 31 years and we will go carbon-free. Perhaps, for example, we will have solved the problem of intermittent wind and solar energy by constructing a worldwide grid which exploits the fact that the sun is always shining and the wind is always blowing somewhere. Energy technology is changing fast; it’s right that energy should be near the top of a new prime minister’s agenda.
Nonetheless, there is still no guarantee that we will have the technology to eliminate all emissions by 2050, however much we spend. In the meantime, we will have to face the consequences of policies which drive up energy prices. They may also make some projects politically impossible. How can the government possibly forge ahead with a third runway at Heathrow, for instance, when it has that legally-binding emissions target? It is inviting activists to take it to court.
There’s a lot more to consider too. Around 50,000 pensioners died last winter according to the ‘excess winter deaths’ figures, the worst death toll for more than 40 years. If people cannot afford to heat their homes, the human cost will be high. If they cannot afford to drive, they could well take to the streets in protest.
Yes, people are more concerned about the environment than ever — but they are also interested in an honest discussion about the trade-offs. If the Conservatives are too busy posing in green camouflage to provide such honesty, they can expect to pay a high political price.
Podcast special: can Britain achieve net zero emissions by 2050?