The gathering campaign against the 'cost of net zero' is defined by straw men arguments, culture war tactics, and a fantastical refusal to engage with climate realities - but it still poses a serious threat to the UK's economic future
The inevitable has finally happened. No, not the record-breaking wildfires, temperatures, and floods, although those too are definitely happening and with an ever more terrifying intensity. I'm talking about the political backlash against climate action, which is somewhat perversely gathering steam just as public concern about the environment soars, climate impacts become ever more visible, and the world's top businesses mobilise billions of dollars of investment in support of a green industrial revolution.
For much of the past five years, political opposition to the UK's climate policies has been surprisingly muted. The UK's world-leading net zero emission target was approved by Parliament with barely a whisper of dissent. Even those media outlets with a long history of climate scepticism struggled to get too exercised about the growing public engagement with environmental issues, barring the occasional pot shot at Extinction Rebellion. Following a wobble under David Cameron when the government moved to 'get rid of the green crap', it looked as if the plummeting cost of clean technologies, the sobering nature of escalating climate impacts, and the international pressure applied by both the Paris Agreement and fast-transforming energy and financial markets, meant the political consensus in support of a rapid net zero transition had become unimpeachable. A raft of genuinely world leading, if still insufficient, emissions targets and decarbonisation policies followed. Plenty more such policies are now in the pipeline.
Seasoned observers knew this détente in the climate wars could not last. Full blown climate scepticism has become a marginal pursuit, occasionally spotted floundering against the rising tide of the public's environmental concerns. As such support for the net zero transition has extended right across the political spectrum, while taking in everyone in civil society from Greenpeace to Shell. But climate scepticism and opponents of climate action did not disappear, they simply went quiet as they instead became embroiled in the endless tussles over Brexit, Covid lockdowns, and whichever culture war topic happened to be trending that week. The lack of political opposition to the UK's emerging net zero strategy was the dog that didn't bark.
Now a belated political pushback against the UK's climate strategy is finally finding its voice. Having become a trustee of the opaquely funded, occasional Piers Corbyn-hosting, Global Warming Policy Foundation (GWPF) 'think tank', self-styled 'Brexit hard man' Steve Baker can now be found tweeting daily about the "#costofnetzero". According to reports this weekend, he has teamed up with South Thanet MP Craig Mackinlay to launch a new group of Conservative MPs to campaign against the perceived costs of the net zero transition. It is expected to be modelled on the hugely influential European Research Group (ERG) that helped bounce the UK into a significantly harder Brexit than was promised at the referendum. Around two dozen Tory MPs are said to be considering joining the new group, after presumably struggling to understand the manifesto they stood on in 2019.
Meanwhile, media outriders for this new group are rehearsing their arguments in an attempt to stoke public outrage against the idea of both a stable climate and the UK playing a lead role in the multi-billion pound industries that will dominate the coming decades. This week alone The Telegraph ran columns from Nick Timothy and Andrew Orlowski attacking the government's net zero strategy, while The Sun today reported on a deeply flawed report endorsed by a handful of Conservative MPs that calls for the government to axe its 2030 target date for ending the sale of internal combustion engine cars and instead focus on setting up yet another air quality working group and moving bike lanes off of our roads. When it is not sending Nigel Farage into the Channel to gawp at the desperate and destitute, the recently launched GB News gives over a sizeable chunk of its airtime to attacks on climate action. The Spectator maintains its position as the house mag of anti-environmentalism. A crescendo of net zero critiques is now certain to coincide with COP26.
How should the many ministers, businesses, campaigners, and politicians who want to deliver a successful Glasgow Climate Summit and catalyse an accelerated net zero transition respond to this gathering backlash?
The first step is to resist the temptation to just ignore it. There is a school of thought that these often poorly researched objections to the net zero transition will be quickly overwhelmed by those plummeting clean tech cost curves and multi-billion dollar net zero investment strategies. Let the luddites throw one last party, the argument goes, while the grown-ups get on with building a brighter, greener future. But the tactics of non-engagement are fraught with risk. From Brexit to Covid to Trump, one of the core lessons of the past five years is that once marginal ideas can quickly command huge influence, even if, and perhaps because, they are based on false premises and the promise that complex problems can be addressed with simple solutions. Personally, I subscribe to journalist Nick Cohen's sage advice that you ignore what is going on at the extremes of political opinion at your peril.
As such it is vital to analyse and engage with these attacks on the 'cost of net zero' so as to demonstrate their many flaws and logical fallacies.
The case against the government's current decarbonisation strategies appears to rest on three pillars. The first is the insistence that critics are not contesting climate science, nor the eventual desirability of achieving net zero emissions - which is convenient, because as mentioned this campaign is being spearheaded by MPs that stood on a manifesto promising voters net zero emissions by 2050 would be one of the government's defining goals. The second is that while a net zero aspiration may be legitimate, current decarbonisation policies will cost too much and that these costs will fall disproportionately on hard working households. The third is that working to accelerate decarbonisation in the UK is pointless because emissions are still rising in large emerging economies such as China and India.
It is useful to address these arguments in reverse order. Concerns about emerging economy emissions are entirely legitimate, but the suggestion this issue is being ignored is false. The question of how to accelerate emissions reductions in developing economies is right at the top of the agenda for COP26 and is the subject of intense debate all around the world, with everything from increased climate financing flows and green trade deals to carbon border tariffs and coal plant retirement plans on the table. Meanwhile, China has quickly become the world's largest renewables and electric vehicle market - as a result its emissions growth is slowing and the government has announced a net zero emissions target for 2060. Yes, China's emissions are still rising, but the oft quoted claim that China is building a new coal power plant every week is simply false.
More importantly, the suggestion the UK and its mid-sized industrialised peers can have no influence on rising global emissions is utterly ahistorical. The first industrial revolution, the post-war consumer revolution, and the digital revolution were all pioneered in a small number of regional hubs before going global and transforming the world. It is self-evident that if the net zero revolution is to succeed it will follow a similar model. It is equally obvious that the countries that were at the forefront of past industrial transformations tended to prosper as a result. Why would a UK supposedly intent on seizing post-Brexit trading opportunities want to miss out on the opportunity to export its clean technologies and expertise around the world? To borrow a phrase, why are you talking Britain down, Steve?
The argument from net zero sceptics that the transition will cost too much is both their strongest card and scandalously partial. Yesterday, Baker alleged on Twitter that Labour leader Keir Starmer's support for the net zero transition was evidence "he's part of the policymaking elite who have decided to make us poorer & colder". The accusation there is a cabal of politicians that actively want to make the public "poorer and colder" frankly borders upon conspiracy theory. The reality is that there is not a single serious climate policymaker, environmental campaigner, or business that is not thinking constantly about how to minimise the costs of the net zero transition and ensure they are fairly spread. Huge work is underway to work out how to ensure environmental policies are progressive and clean tech cost reductions are accelerated. The Climate Change Committee - which is fast emerging as a bogeyman for net zero sceptics who routinely fail to understand its remit - is specifically tasked by government with trying to ascertain the least cost pathway for delivering on the UK's climate goals.
A small fringe of green activists may call for everything to be shut down tomorrow in a desperate attempt to get to net zero emissions by 2030, but the vast majority of business and political leaders accept the net zero transition can only proceed if the short term cost impacts on households and industries are kept to a minimum. That is why, for better or worse, the Prime Minister has already ruled out proposals for a meat tax and is exploring how to make energy bill levies more progressive.
There are good reasons to think this effort to manage the costs of the net zero transition can succeed. Clean tech costs are still falling fast, climate action remains hugely popular with the public, and, as analysis after analysis has shown, the costs of shifting towards low carbon infrastructure are massively outweighed by the immense benefits. The Office of Budgetary Responsibility (OBR) is just the latest in a string of institutions to highlight how relatively modest investment in the net zero tranition would create hundreds of thousands of good jobs, lead to the development of world-leading industries with enormous export potential, deliver cleaner air and improved health outcomes, and, of course, reduce the risk of genuinely catastrophic climate impacts. Yes there are costs, but they are far outweighed by the costs and risks of inaction. Meanwhile, from tax reform and green bonds to energy efficiency upgrades and zero emission vehicle mandates, there are myriad ways governments can minimise the costs of the transition and ensure they are fairly distributed.
The fixation on the costs of the net zero transition without an honest appraisal of the benefits is, to borrow another gambit from the Brexit wars, an example of Project Fear.
Finally, the insistence that these critics of climate action are questioning neither the science of climate change nor the desirability of decarbonisation is misleading at best, dishonest at worst. Their campaign is a form of climate denialism. We know this because they have a tell as blatant as the worst poker player.
In his column this week Nick Timothy spent 800 words attacking the government's net zero plans, before declaring "the world must take action against climate change - this is not in doubt". But he offered not a word on what action the world should take, beyond a vague appeal for the UK to be "mindful of what can be done alone, and what might be done together, what might be achieved through changing behaviour and what might be achieved with the help of technology".
Time and again Baker and his allies attack the 'cost of net zero' and warn of the futility of tackling UK emissions when China is still polluting, but offer nothing on how we should instead respond to the escalating climate crisis. Today's report attacking the ban on new petrol and diesel cars from 2030 provides another case in point, insisting that environmental campaigners should somehow 'compromise' and explore how to cut emissions while retaining internal combustion engines indefinitely.
If these critics of climate action really accepted scientists' warnings then the logical extension of the dismissal of current net zero policies would be a desperate scramble to identify an alternative strategy. I don't want to give them any ideas, but they would be launching a concerted campaign to raise taxes to drastically increase investment in climate resilience, a call to mobilise a 20-fold increase in advanced clean tech R&D funding, and a plan to explore the viability of geo-engineering. Distressingly such a campaign would probably include increasingly fearful calls for a ramping up of defence capabilities to guard against the instability unleashed by a dangerously warming world.
In other words, if you really accept climate scientists' warnings but also think net zero strategies will fail then why is there no fear in your voice? You either don't understand the scale of the climate threat or you don't really believe it is a threat at all.
This absence of an alternative strategy is the fundamental flaw in the critiques of the net zero transition, and the more astute opponents of the government's current policies know this. That's why we can expect to see a lot more along the lines of the arguments sketched out by Orlowski this week, as he explained why we should respond to the urgency of now by waiting a few more years. The idea we should defer immediate climate action in the hope that new lower cost and more effective clean technologies can ride to the rescue is a tempting one. Orlowski tips algae-based biofuels for a breakthrough at some point in the coming decade, but expect to see a lot more similarly detail-lite articles and reports in the coming weeks touting the potential of next generation nuclear reactors, carbon capture and storage (CCS), e-fuels, and geo-engineering.
This argument has something to recommend it - we should definitely be investing a lot more in advanced clean tech R&D and next generation nuclear and CCS could yet have a critical role to play in the net zero transition. But relying on the magic innovation tree is a form of climate denialism, and again there is a tell. If you really believed advanced innovation was the last best hope to avert 3C or more of warming you would be presenting it alongside the acknowledgement that it is a massive gamble, that if these technologies fail to emerge at 30 seconds to midnight then we are facing potential disaster. You would also accept that these technologies are unlikely to fully decarbonise modern economies inside 30 years on their own, and support from established clean technologies and energy efficiency improvements is also bound to be required. This acknowledgement is completely lacking. You could only gloss over these concerns if you did not really believe that a genuine climate crisis is looming.
Of course, making it explicit that the new climate sceptics rely on the same comforting misconceptions and cavalier attitudes to risk as the old climate sceptics achieves little beyond spotlighting the deeply reckless assumptions that underpin their campaign. They are not really that interested in developing a credible alternative response to the climate crisis, because they do not really believe there is a crisis to address.
However, it is important to recognise that this campaign is a form of climate scepticism 2.0, because that realisation should inform the response from both the government and all those who want the net zero transition to accelerate. If you'll excuse the corporate speak cliché, the climate sceptic revival creates an urgent need for Ministers, green businesses, and climate hawk activists to lean in to the challenge ahead.
They need to engage with the legitimate cost concerns that are raised - EVs and heat pumps are currently still too expensive, 'range anxiety' is a thing, any regressive environmental policies should be reformed - and explain again and again how these issues are being tackled by fast improving technologies and infrastructure. They need to highlight the many upsides that come from the net zero transition, including the social and health benefits as well as the obvious economic gains. They need to debunk zombie myths and dubious cost projections wherever they arise, but they also need to offer a compelling counter narrative centred on the need to rebuild our green and pleasant land and establish the industries of the 21st century. They need, in the words of Boris Johnson, to reject the "doomsters and the gloomsters".
Most of all though, they need to heed Greta Thunberg's warnings and treat the climate crisis as a crisis. One of the strengths of the campaign against the net zero transition is found in the way it asks, "why are any costs being imposed? Why do we have to change anything?" It is a question that actually becomes more effective if the government tries to triangulate with its critics by soft pedalling on net zero policies and failing to instil any sense of urgency. Such a scenario would invite the public to ask "if there really is an emergency, why are we not seeing emergency measures? Why are you telling me nothing much has to change any time soon?"
As the FT's Henry Mance argued in a must read column yesterday, the vast majority of politicians are currently guilty of treating climate action "as a headache, not a heart attack", squandering teachable moments and refusing to push through the genuinely ambitious policies and investments that could help decarbonise our homes, cars, and diets. "London suffered flash floods twice in the past month," Mance observed. "Water poured through Tube stations. Raw sewage gushed through homes. People were rightly alarmed. Did Boris Johnson or his ministers seize the moment? Did they wade through the water, and explain that worse would come unless we acted? Did they bring out charts showing that the trend in extreme weather is even worse than climate scientists forecast? Did they announce new policies to reduce emissions? They did not."
A government that engaged with the net zero transition with honesty and humility and made it central to everything it did, that forcefully defended its strategy at every turn while acknowledging the challenges ahead, that got out of its defensive crouch and called out the fallacies and pessimism contained in the arguments of its internal critics, would quickly find that public and business support for serious climate action is overwhelming. Opposition to the net zero transition was always inevitable, but so too is the global emergence of the low carbon industries that might yet avert an era of rolling catastrophes. It would be a tragedy of epic proportions if the UK was to let a handful of culture warriors rebrand the climate scepticism of old for the social media age and in the process condemn the country to a laggard role in the defining economic and geopolitical story of the 21st century.