It is important not to overstate the strength of arguments against climate action that have repeatedly falied to gain traction
One of the most common responses to the gathering political campaign against the UK's net zero strategy is that it is important not to underestimate such an experienced and effective band of campaigners, regardless of how modest they may be in number. This is sage advice. Steve Baker and his various allies in Parliament and the press have an established and successful Brexit playbook for taking a fringe concern of limited interest to the public and turning it into a wedge issue so powerful it upends the economic and geopolitical direction of the entire country. They now hope to repeat the trick. Nigel Farage reportedly stands ready once more to lend a hand.
But after watching this weekend's latest fusillade of editorials and letters (some from bizarrely unnamed MPs) arguing for the government to dilute its net zero plans and revive the fracking industry it is hard not to conclude that it is equally important not to overestimate their abilities.
Perhaps the most pertinent forerunner to this campaign is not Brexit, but the various campaigns previously pedalled by Baker's friends at the Global Warming Policy Foundation and the accompanying network of 'free market' think tanks and media titles.
Over the past decade this loose grouping has argued against renewables, only to watch them become the lowest cost form of new power capacity and backbone of the energy system. They've argued against electric vehicles, only to watch them become the driving force in the auto market. They've argued against net zero goals on the grounds no other countries have them, only to watch 90 per cent of the global economy adopt such targets. And they've argued for fracking, only to watch it get itself banned. It's quite the track record.
In fact, their only genuinely successful campaign of the past decade was the one that helped push David Cameron to cut energy efficiency funding schemes and shelve zero carbon home standards. According to recent analysis, that genius move has cost the UK around £2.5bn in higher bills, or £60 per household.
I was reminded of this litany this weekend while reading the letter from a small band of MPs arguing reviving fracking would restore a sense of community in northern England, and Andrew Neil's bold suggestion that he had discovered "the answer to the energy crisis".
When you unpack their manifesto the paucity of it is genuinely staggering. It goes something like this: blame the 'green blob' and 'mad' politicians; suggest there is a simple solution to a complex energy crisis; quote highly contestable projections for fracking production and jobs; make no mention of the negligible impact UK gas production would have on domestic prices without export bans or nationalisation; big up the potential of new nuclear projects, but make no mention of cost implications; make no mention of energy efficiency; and most of all, in no way engage with what to do about the increased emissions and climate risks that would come with the expansion of gas infrastructure. And that's it.
The public is not stupid. None of this passes the sniff test, even before you consider the neo-climate denial it is built upon. The MPs backing this campaign are effectively saying to their constituents, 'yes, you've lived through the most traumatic period since the war, inflation is off the charts, you can't get a GP appointment, and your trust in politics has been obliterated by Number 10 rule-breaking; but don't worry, we can solve this with a couple of fracking wells, some vague deregulation, and a nuclear plant that we'll build to an indeterminate timetable and price tag'.
In contrast, the net zero agenda is not some magic salve for all the UK's woes, but it does at least speak to the needs of a 21st century economy and the concerns of the public. It promises good green jobs, regional development, ultimately lower energy bills and enhanced energy security, and improved health and well-being, even before you get to the whole habitable biosphere stuff.
This ultimately is why, to date, the Net Zero Scrutiny Group has enjoyed much the same level of success as all those previous climate sceptic campaigns. Reviving fracking and insisting you can bring down energy bills and still reach net zero through a combination of domestic gas and new nuclear projects is both bad politics and bad economics. It is simply not plausible. But worst than that, it is obviously implausible. It was possible to spin the idea that freeing the UK of EU membership could revive its fortunes, even if we have to wait 50 years to see the gamble pay off. It is much harder to spin the idea you can solve a gas price crisis by increasing your reliance on gas, that you can decarbonise while polluting more.
That is why the Treasury has resisted calls to axe green levies, the Department for Business has just approved more clean power auctions, and the Energy Minister yesterday insisted net zero is part of the solution, not part of the problem here.
However, there is still no room for complacency amongst those who want to see the net zero transition accelerate. The reality is this campaign against climate action is less about tactical policy victories now, and more about positioning net zero and climate scepticism to try and secure dominance under the next Conservative leader, whoever they may be and whenever they succeed Johnson.
And more important still, the harsh reality baked into any campaign to slow climate action is it does not have to succeed to win. Every time efforts to decarbonise are delayed or diluted by a desire to triangulate with the myth that net zero is a costly and unnecessary undertaking, those seeking to prolong fossil fuel demand still chalk up another win. Their central arguments can be proven wrong time and again, but if political machinations result in energy efficiency schemes being diluted or clean tech policy decisions deferred then they will still celebrate.
That's why, despite their track record, it is important not to underestimate those now seeking to tear down the UK's net zero strategy. Their arguments are comically partial and their analysis deeply questionable. They will almost certainly not succeed in blocking the economic and technological trends that are underpinning the steady construction of the UK's net zero economy. Their alternative proposals beg the question, is this it? But they still have the potential to slow progress that urgently needs to accelerate.
This article first appeared as part of BusinessGreen's Overnight Briefing, which you can sign up for here.
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