When Theresa May committed the government to achieving ‘net zero’ carbon emissions by 2050, Sir John Armitt, chair of the National Infrastructure Commission, likened it to President Kennedy’s 1961 promise to put a man on the moon by the end of the 1960s. How we would achieve net zero might not yet be clear, but a combination of ambition and ingenuity would somehow see us through. Still, at least JFK had some idea about the cost and he did not make it a legally binding obligation for the US to visit the moon, thus inviting activists to sue the government if it failed.
Rishi Sunak is now understood to be in rebellion against the costs of net zero — whatever they might be. The Treasury was supposed to have published its assessment in March, but that is yet to see the light of day (one leaked official assessment put it at £1 trillion). Nor has the government yet published its ‘heat and buildings strategy’, which is supposed to lay out its plans for overhauling the country’s heating systems — and, no less importantly, who will pay.
Boris Johnson is getting ready to establish himself as a green prime minister ahead of the coming COP26 climate change summit in Glasgow. Since 2010 Britain has reduced its territorial carbon emissions by 28 per cent, more than any G20 country, when the rest of the G7 managed just 5 per cent. Our progress is less impressive when you count ‘non-territorial’ emissions (e.g. aviation and imports). But the UK has made impressive progress in phasing out coal-fired power stations, which will be gone within three years, and investing in renewable energy instead.
As a result, the UK’s carbon emissions are now lower than at any time since Victorian days. So Britain does have a claim to be an environmental leader.