Guest post by Iain Aitken
[Note: This essay is abstracted from my book The Climate Change Crisis – Fact or Fiction?]
In Britain the Climate Change Act (2008) originally legally obliged governments up to 2050 to achieve greenhouse gas emissions that were 80% lower than their 1990 level. This Act was voted into law by 463 votes to 3. Try and imagine a comparable situation in America today with over 99% of the House of Representatives (432 of the 435 voting representatives), of all political hues, including far-right Republicans, voting for such a radically society transformative and economically painful legally binding measure for the next 30 years. Former British Chancellor of the Exchequer Nigel Lawson has stated that, ‘This may well go down in history as the most absurd piece of legislation any British parliament has ever passed.’ In June 2019, following the British Parliament’s declaration of a ‘climate change emergency’, the 80% reduction ambition was increased to achieve net zero by 2050 (again, legally binding); when this proposal was put before Parliament not one Member of Parliament spoke against it or raised any questions about either the temperature and risk reduction benefit of achieving the new goal or the socioeconomic and environmental costs of such radical decarbonization. Basically, the question ‘Is there actually a climate change emergency?’ is not being asked in Britain; instead it is generally regarded by the public, politicians, journalists and academics as a ‘scientific fact’, only questioned by the delusional – and the only real ‘debate’ is about how quickly we will fix it. Britain is apparently sleepwalking into potentially the most radical economic and societal change in its post-industrial history – with no due diligence on the science behind the ‘climate change emergency’ idea, little understanding of the socioeconomic transformation that would be needed to achieve net zero and little understanding of the ineffectuality of even this radical decarbonization of the British economy.
Because Britain contributes less than 1% to global carbon dioxide emissions if it actually achieved its new net zero goal it would produce in total an estimated 0.0140C temperature reduction by 2100, i.e. about a hundredth of a degree Centigrade. Since even our most accurate (satellite) temperature measurements have a margin of error of about ±0.030C that means that the temperature reduction that might be achieved by such heroic unilateral decarbonization in Britain is about half as much as the margin of error in measuring it; in other words it is undetectable (even if you could somehow isolate it, which you could not). This is at a cost estimated by the government of £1.3 trillion (about $1.8 trillion) by 2050 – although some estimates put it at £3 trillion, with a loss of 2-3% of GDP for a period of at least 20 years – and all this while Britain struggles to rebuild public finances ravaged by the Covid-19 crisis, this having been described by the current Chancellor of the Exchequer as an ‘economic emergency’. For perspective, £1.3 trillion is about 60% of Britain’s entire national debt, is about eleven times the total current budget for England’s National Health Service and represents a cost of about £45,000 for every British household. Former Prime Minister David Cameron once described the Climate Change Act as ‘an insurance policy’. If so it is a policy that attracts a cumulative premium of at least £1.3 trillion in order to insure Britain against the possible ‘risk’ of an undetectable and imperceptible hundredth of a degree Centigrade increase in its mean surface temperature.
In The Climate Change Act at Ten, History’s most expensive virtue signal, Rupert Darwall concludes, ‘[The Climate Change Act’s] real purpose is not to cut global greenhouse gas emissions. Rather it is to demonstrate British climate leadership. While politicians flatter themselves as climate saviours, the costs are borne in worsened business competitiveness and squeezed household budgets that weigh most heavily on the poorest in society. In one regard though, the CCA has succeeded in its aim as a demonstration project. No other serious country will do anything quite so foolish in the name of saving the climate.’ However it appears that under Joe Biden and the ‘Green New Deal’ proposed by the Democrats America does indeed intend to follow Britain’s example, with its new commitment to achieve net zero by 2050 at the latest, this being estimated to achieve about a 0.10C reduction in man-made global warming by 2100 (and a correspondingly trivial reduction in climate change risks).
Since carbon dioxide-emitting coal, oil and gas still account for more than half of Britain’s total electricity consumption and 80% of its primary energy needs, with wind and solar only meeting 3.5% of those needs (according to the UK’s Office for National Statistics) achieving the net zero target would be, to say the least, challenging in the extreme and have a hugely adverse impact on Britain’s economy and the lifestyles and standards of living of its population. Achieving net zero by 2050 would also require
- estimated to require building new nuclear capability at the rate of 1.2GW per year for the next 30 years, equivalent to a major nuclear power plant every three years (yet by 2030 Britain will be left with only one functioning nuclear power plant, based on current plans), and/or
- radically switching to non-nuclear renewable energy, covering the country and coast with wind farms, solar farms and tidal barrages (which would be extremely politically challenging and which provides only intermittent energy and so requires non-renewable backup anyway), and/or
- radically increasing electricity imports from Europe, this creating a huge energy security problem and anyway just exporting the carbon dioxide emissions elsewhere in the world, and/or
- radically deploying Carbon Capture and Storage technology (technology that has yet to be proved to work on a commercial scale and is ruinously expensive).
Basically, how a net zero Britain will keep the lights on is currently a mystery.
A net zero Britain might be characterized by
- a ban on the sale of both new and existing houses that fail to achieve a high energy performance rating, this is being proposed by the UK Climate Change Committee (who advise the UK government on climate change issues) to take effect in 2028; this would make a substantial proportion of Britain’s housing stock unsaleable (or require extremely expensive and ugly modifications to raise their performance rating)
- a ban on gas and oil heating and cooking (the low carbon equipment replacement cost being estimated by the UK Climate Change Committee at £26,300 per household, or about £710 billion across the country)
- substantially higher house building costs as a result of required higher standards of insulation and heat pumps being three to four times more expensive to install than gas-fired or oil-fired boilers
- substantially higher electricity costs resulting from the running costs of heat pumps being three to four times that of gas-fired or oil-fired boilers, the higher cost of renewable-sourced electricity and the huge investment needed to balance a grid dependent largely on intermittent energy sources
- an acceptance of electricity rationing and the possibility of regular blackouts (in particular in anticyclonic periods over winter, when wind and sunshine are in short supply) owing to the intermittent renewable power supply for homes and industry (electricity rationing is already being proposed in Britain through changes to the Smart Energy Code)
- an acceptance of electricity supply companies switching off (via next generation ‘smart meters’) high usage electrical devices, such as electric vehicle chargers and central heating systems, in homes when the grid is at a state of emergency – and this without compensation or warning
- an escalation in fuel poverty with many vulnerable people being unable to afford to heat their homes (or, perhaps, the ‘redistribution’ of wealth, with punitive taxation on wealthier members of society being used to give subsidies to the poorer members of society, so that they would not feel the pain of higher fuel costs)
- substantially higher food costs resulting from restrictions on food imports and higher transportation costs
- severe restrictions on personal transport, both what type of car you may buy (electric only) and whether you can afford it, given that battery electric cars currently are between 50% and 100% more expensive to buy and run than a comparable conventional car; indeed you may not even be permitted to buy it at all – the UK Government’s Science and Technology Select Committee (in its 2019 report Clean Growth: Technologies for meeting the UK’s emissions reduction targets) has already said that personal transport is incompatible with the net zero target
- rationing of electric vehicle mileage and/or taxation based on mileage (i.e. ‘road pricing’), if only to replace the government revenue lost from the loss of vehicle excise duty and fuel duty on petrol and diesel, this currently amounting to £40 billion annually
- the possible introduction of individual carbon quotas (this has already been proposed in France, initially with a view to constraining air travel)
- higher taxes on flying, with the possibility of rationing of flying for non-essential purposes – and possibly a ban; a recent report, Absolute Zero, from the University of Cambridge, determined that all of Britain’s airports must be shut by 2050 if net zero is to be achieved
- severe restrictions on haulage and shipping
- severe restrictions on meat consumption
- high (and steadily rising) carbon taxes, in particular on petrol/gasoline and oil, so reducing disposable incomes
- rising unemployment as a result of the further outsourcing of Britain’s manufacturing and food production abroad in order to reduce our national emissions; this would, in particular, be likely to precipitate the effective collapse of the motor manufacturing, aviation, steel and cement industries in Britain, given that these are some of the highest greenhouse gas emitters (and are extremely hard to decarbonize) – but simply export the emissions elsewhere in the world
- the despoliation of the countryside and coastline with a vast expansion of wind and solar farms and tidal barrages – not to mention the appalling effect on wildlife.
Depending on your politics and values this Big Government centralist assault on our freedoms, prosperity, lifestyles and landscapes may look like a prelapsarian socialist utopia or a totalitarian Orwellian dystopia. In terms of the impact of net zero on our lifestyles perhaps one of the best comparisons is the Amish, who already live very low carbon lives. Given the weeks of riots in France by the Gilets Jaunes, originally prompted by no more than a few cents carbon tax on their car fuel, would the peoples of other democracies simply accept such radical changes without a murmur?
Ask the people of Britain, ‘Should the government do more to fix the climate change emergency?’ and it is a safe bet that the vast majority (especially the young), convinced of the reality of that emergency (and that fixing it will have little impact on them personally), would reply, ‘Yes’. But if we were to ask them if, in order to fix it, they would be prepared to give up their cars, stop holidaying abroad, accept regular electricity blackouts, pay three times as much for their (intermittently available) electricity, pay 50% more for their food, pay over £20,000 to replace their gas/oil boiler, pay over £30,000 to improve their house insulation, cut back on their meat consumption, possibly lose their job and live next to a wind farm the answer might be more equivocal – especially if you point out that not only would that not fix the posited climate change emergency, it would actually have no detectable effect at all.
If the characteristics of the green ‘brave new world’ were set out clearly and honestly to the electorate of Britain and it was explained that the climate benefits in return would be undetectable in any country’s climate anywhere in the world would they really vote for it? Of course the current dominant government and media narrative is that not only would such a transition be painless for the public but through a vast ‘investment’ in this green future Britain would actually be a better place to live – and that by Britain achieving net zero the ‘climate change emergency’ would somehow go away. In other words the dominant government and media narrative over the challenges, costs, impacts and benefits of achieving net zero bears no resemblance to the reality. Then again, perhaps the government is in denial and actually believes its own narrative – or cynically thinks that by the time the public wake up to the real pain of decarbonization the politicians responsible will have long since left office – or thinks that even if there isn’t really a climate change emergency net zero should nevertheless deliver a world with less noise, less pollution, cleaner air and cleaner water – and who could possibly object to that? To which the answer is of course all those who are concerned that the environmental, societal and economic downsides of net zero will far outweigh these undoubted upsides. As they say, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Perhaps if the ‘Green Economy’ were rebranded the ‘Green Austerity’ people would consider the consequences of net zero more carefully.
As Obersteiner et al put it in Managing Climate Risk, the key unresolved question is whether global decarbonization ‘will fundamentally reshape our common future on a global scale to our advantage, or quickly produce losses that can throw mankind into economic, social, and environmental bankruptcy.’ As Dr Judith Curry said recently, ‘The known risks to human wellbeing associated with constraining fossil fuels may be worse than the eventual risks from climate change, and there are undoubtedly some risks from both that we currently do not foresee.’ Similarly Bjørn Lomborg has said, ‘If we try to cut as much carbon dioxide as we can, out of a sense of panic, we could easily end up reducing human well-being to a degree that far offsets any environmental benefits we achieve.’
Basically, if you wish for net zero then you need to be very, very careful what you wish for. We may all end up sleepwalking to Green Austerity.