Net Zero. It sounded a noble objective. As Chris Skidmore, the Government Minister who introduced the bill to the House of Commons in 2019, observed, it would mean Britain becoming the first major economy in the world to make a legally binding commitment to eliminate greenhouse emissions. But what did it really mean, what was it going to cost, and did any of the MPs who had just nodded it through actually understand the implications?
The Government’s case was based around a claim made some months earlier by the Climate Change Committee (CCC) – which advises the Government on climate policy – that achieving net zero emissions by 2050 would cost between 1-2% of GDP per annum by 2050 – roughly equating to an eventual bill of £1 trillion by that date. But this, said the Minister, was before you took into account the many benefits, such as increased air quality and what he called “green-collar jobs”. Moreover, he implied that falling costs would reduce the bill further. Forget the bill, in other words; it will be a modest fee given what we will gain.
Not one MP pointed out the folly: how can you possibly estimate the cost of doing something when you have no idea how it can be done? By 2019, Britain was well on its way to phasing out coal power and generating around 15% of its electricity from wind farms and solar farms. A small proportion of electric cars were already on the road. But fossil fuel-free aviation? Decarbonisation of the steel and cement industries? Satisfying an enormous hike in demand for power as cars and domestic heating were switched from oil and gas to electricity? Energy storage to cope with the intermittent nature of wind and solar energy? These were among the many technological problems with which the country had hardly begun to grapple. While in some cases solutions might exist in theory or have been demonstrated on a laboratory-scale, no one knew whether they could successfully be scaled up and at what cost. As John Kerry, the U.S. climate envoy, was later to say, half the technology which will be required to achieve Net Zero has yet to be invented. The U.K. Parliament, however, had just approved a law obligating the country to Net Zero with no idea of how, when or whether that technology would be developed – and not the faintest idea of what it would really cost.
When National Grid ESO – the company which runs the electricity grid in Britain – attempted to calculate its own estimate of the cost of reaching Net Zero by 2050 it came up with an answer dramatically different to that of the CCC. In 2020 it presented four different scenarios of how Britain might attempt the transition, involving different blends of renewable energy, changes in consumer behaviour and so on. Its estimated costings in each case came out at around £160 billion a year of investment, eventually reaching a total of around £3 trillion. That was three times the figure which the CCC had touted just a year earlier – and National Grid was only trying to price up the decarbonisation of the energy sector, not agriculture and difficult-to-decarbonise sectors such as steel and cement. To MPs who had treated the CCC’s figure as gospel, and nodded through the 2050 target, it was a sharp reminder that they had committed the country to an open-ended bill, the eventual size of which no one could reasonably guess – other than to say it was going to be huge. Those MPs knew full well the Government’s lousy record on estimating costs of things we do know how to do – such as building a high-speed railway in the shape of HS2 from London to Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds, whose estimated costs nearly trebled from £37.5 billion in 2009 to £107 billion in 2019. Yet they had swallowed whole an attempt to put a price on doing something which had vastly more unknowns and which involved technologies yet to be invented or proved on a commercial scale.
It took two years for the Government itself to come up with some kind of plan of how it would reach Net Zero. Britain could do it “without so much as a hair shirt in sight”, wrote Prime Minister Boris Johnson in the foreword to his Net Zero Strategy, published in October 2021. “No one will be required to rip out their existing boiler or scrap their current car.” By 2035, the document went on to say, the U.K. would be powered entirely by clean electricity “subject to security of supply”. To this end it was going to invest in floating wind farms and, by 2024, make a decision as to how to fund a large nuclear plant (yes, just one, and it was only the decision that would be made by 2024; it would take another decade or so to build). There would be investment in hydrogen, so that hopefully by 2035 we might have a public hydrogen supply to replace the gas supply (although a decision on whether to pursue this was delayed until 2026). Also by 2035, the price of electric heat pumps might have come down – might – to make them a practical replacement for new gas boilers which would by then be banned. New petrol and diesel cars would be banned from 2030, hybrids from 2035. There would be £750 million of investment to plant new woodlands and restore peat bogs.
But the Net Zero Strategy left more questions unanswered than it answered. How are we to establish security of electricity supply if we come to rely even more on intermittent renewables? How is one nuclear power station going to solve our problems when it – along with the one currently under construction at Hinkley in Somerset – won’t even replace Britain’s seven existing nuclear power stations, all of which are due to reach the end of their working lives by 2035? Does the Government really have confidence that it will turn out to be economical to produce hydrogen by zero-carbon means – as opposed to manufacturing it from coal and gas, as almost all the world’s hydrogen is currently produced? You can order us all to buy electric cars, but how are you going to make sure that the cars are themselves zero carbon, given that a hefty proportion of a vehicle’s lifetime’s emissions are tied up in its manufacture? If we are going to cover the countryside with woodland, where does that leave food production? Are we going to be even more reliant on importing it from overseas, with the consequence that our food might end up with a higher carbon footprint than now?
On top of that was left dangling the biggest question of all: what is it all going to cost us, and who is going to end up paying the bill? On the same day that the Net Zero Strategy was published, the Treasury produced its own assessment of the costs of Net Zero. Did the Treasury agree with the Climate Change Committee’s assessment that it would cost no more than £1 trillion, or National Grid’s estimate of £3 trillion for the energy sector alone? It couldn’t say. It offered no estimate of the cost of Net Zero; arguing, rather, that it wasn’t possible to make such an estimate at this stage. As for who will pay, that was at least becoming clear. We were all going to be paying, either through our taxes or through supplements on our energy bills.
Britain, in short, is to embark on an experiment unique in human history, in which it voluntarily rejects whole areas of established technology which currently make society and the economy function, and tries to replace them with novel technologies, some of which do not currently exist and others of which may exist on a demonstration level but have not yet been scaled up. And the whole project has to be completed in just 27 years, no allowances, no wriggle room. It will be an industrial revolution to put all previous periods of human progress in the shade – if it can be achieved. But there is a very, very big and expensive ‘if’ there. It is generally good to be ambitious and optimistic. There is a point, however, at which it becomes foolishness.
Is there even a Plan B in case technology disappoints and it proves not possible to decarbonise Britain without causing huge damage to the economy? I asked the Business Secretary, Kwasi Kwarteng, this in October 2021 and he denied there was a need for such a plan.
No minister seems brave enough to say that the 2050 target may have to be revisited. Asked in July 2022 whether they were committed to the 2050 target, all five remaining Conservative leadership candidates confirmed that they were – although one, Kemi Badenoch, had previously suggested the target might have to be moved out to 2060 or 2070. All objection to the Net Zero Strategy has been brushed aside by Government ministers who insist there really is no alternative: so dire is the climate emergency that we simply have to decarbonise everything we do – fail to do so and we will be lashed by ever more dramatic weather: tossed, boiled, frozen and drowned. Behind it, though, lies a Little Englander fantasy: that somehow we can tackle climate change on our own, even if other countries do not follow our example. Yet Britain accounts for less than 1% of global emissions (or a bit more if you count them on a consumption basis rather than emissions basis).
Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, China, which accounts for 33% of global emissions, is addressing climate change in its own way – one which isn’t going to put constraints on its industries or involve the impoverishment of its people. And many other countries are adopting the same attitude.
Not Zero: How an Irrational Target Will Impoverish You, Help China (and Won’t Even Save the Planet) by Ross Clark – of which this article is an extract – is published by Forum on February 2nd.