Many observers will rightly point to gaps and perceived weaknesses or inadequacies in the the Net Zero strategy. But the general direction is better than we might have expected from a collection of former science deniers, and will need to be defended against sustained attack from groups of Tory backbench reactionaries.
“More joy in heaven over one sinner that repenteth ….”
The transformation of some of our political leaders from positive hostility to the findings of climate science, to at least a grudging acceptance of its realities, or even apparent enthusiasm for a Green future, is remarkable and welcome.
Let’s not forget, though, the past role of such as Nigel Lawson and the Global Warming Policy Foundation, or “think tanks” such as the Institute for Economic Affairs, among many others, in obscuring the issues, and delaying general acceptance and understanding of the truths that have been evident to most scientists and intelligent observers for at least twenty years. This historic guilt can certainly be found in the present Cabinet and there are many unreconstructed MPs in the governing party who cannot be relied upon to support net zero policies when the going gets tough, as it will.
Even our PM’s recruitment to the crusade against greenhouse gas emissions is, he admits, recent. It is not so long since he himself was querying the scientific consensus, dabbling in crackpot theories about sunspots, and disparaging windfarms. The real test will arrive when he has to confront opposition from the climate sceptics within his own party. That will start soon.
Defeated on the science, the sceptics and fossil fuel lobbyists are now regrouping under the banner of climate action as “too expensive”, and we can expect to hear more from that caucus of MPs – the “net zero scrutiny group” – as the requirements become more apparent.
It’s quite clear, and not just from the Net Zero paper itself, that the government does grasp the main priorities for policy, unsurprising since they have the benefit of years of reports from the Committee on Climate Change. Decarbonising the power sector, through some combination of nuclear and renewables, is the crucial first step. The ambition to fully decarbonise by 2035 is welcome. Then comes the switch from internal combustion (ICE) to electric vehicles (EV). This is now gathering momentum, and not just in the UK.
But the third major building block has to be residential heating. This will be slower, more expensive and more difficult, and will be more contentious while heat pumps remain expensive and largely unproven. Slower progress in this area is the only realistic prognosis, and household fears for the cost and efficacy of low carbon heating are already surfacing. Progress here will necessarily be a marathon not a sprint. This is the area with the most problems to be resolved and where we are most in need of more coherent plans.
Economics and Finance. The Gaps.
The government’s ideological position emphasises the role of the market. Important though this may be, every innovation, from heat pumps to small nuclear reactors, will also depend on government financial commitments. Indeed that commitment is already necessary to ensure sufficient generating capacity of any kind. A solid regulatory framework is also necessary to underpin private investment and provide consumer tariffs that allow consumers to make low carbon choices.
“Public money is essential to kickstart the net zero journey and turn expensive new technology into affordable everyday infrastructure.” (The Guardian) There are signs of tension between the Treasury and other departments over the pace and cost of the government's net zero plans.
The Net Zero Review does not appear to have given too much ammunition to government critics by overstating costs of a net zero transition. The final version of the report, while not presenting a formal cost-benefit analysis, argues that a well-managed net zero transition can deliver net economic benefits to the UK. “Global action to mitigate climate change is essential to long-term UK prosperity," the review states. However this is unlikely to deter the dedicated opponents of any effective action to counter or mitigate climate change.
Political battles ahead
Indeed the “net zero scrutiny” group are already busy inventing their own facts, as I demonstrated in a recent post on infrastructure requirements for EVs, and making extreme claims about the supposed injustices of policies, such as those on EVs, to promote decarbonisation. We should expect a spate of scare stories and misinformation related not just to EVs but to any new technology that moves us away from fossil fuel. These are likely to focus on heat pump plans in particular, where there are some real practical and financial issues, and net zero aspirations are most vulnerable, or may at least take longer to achieve.
Despite whatever reservations there may be as to the sufficiency of the government’s plans, however, the immediate challenge will be to maintain and strengthen the wider public consensus that recognises the gravity of the climate crisis and the need for action.