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22 October 2021

How Cop26 has triggered a new assault by climate sceptics

The populist attack on net-zero economics is a threat to all those who want a greener planet.

By Richard Black

A major United Nations climate summit approaches, and contrarian forces muster. This should come as no surprise. UN climate agreements can accelerate decarbonisation – and so entities opposed to decarbonisation, for reasons of money, ideology or plain cussedness, try to disrupt them. It would be deeply strange if they did not.

The exemplar is the run-up to the Copenhagen summit of 2009, and the hacking of emails from the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia (UEA) – emails parsed and leaked so as to suggest corruption at the heart of climate science. The most immediate beneficiary was the Global Warming Policy Foundation, launched by former chancellor of the Exchequer Nigel Lawson and sports sociologist Benny Peiser an astonishingly rapid three days after the email leak went public, which demanded an inquiry. The Copenhagen summit faced plenty of other issues, but undermining the science was a sure-fire way of piling on additional pressure.

Who orchestrated the UEA episode is now irrelevant: what matters is to appreciate what the pattern of events may mean for the politics of net zero. 

In 2009, the email hack was preceded by a series of Freedom of Information (FoI) requests sent to climate scientists at UEA. A few compliant journalists spun this into a sequence of media stories building the picture of a defensive establishment with much to hide. 

In 2021, merchandising doubt on the science of climate change is no longer tenable. Casting doubt on the cost of moving to net zero, however, is. This matters hugely, because to tackle climate change is to move to net zero in the next few decades; science shows there is no other way to do it. And painting the UK’s plans as unaffordable or unworkable has global relevance, given that Cop26’s main task is to accelerate the global course to net zero.

Lawson’s GWPF is again at the centre of things – sending FoI requests to government departments and the Climate Change Committee; producing its own cost estimates, which unsurprisingly turn out to be much higher than anyone else’s; and finding journalists happy to create stories of an obfuscating establishment. A supporting cast is mustered in Westminster and among the elite media commentariat. For Peter Lilley in 2009, read Steve Baker and Craig Mackinlay in 2021; for Neil Hamilton and Conrad Black then, read any number of columnists attempting to pin the gas price crisis on renewable energy, or claiming that the public doesn’t want the net zero transition despite a mound of evidence showing that it does. It’s a different year and a different angle – but there is the same elite access, the same twisting of reality, the same playbook.

The UK government’s decision to tie its net zero strategy so closely to its hosting of Cop26, in terms of both rhetoric and sequencing, has given contrarians a perfect opportunity to challenge the economics of net zero at a particularly febrile moment. GWPF’s campaigning wing, the Global Warming Policy Forum, has accordingly changed its name to NetZeroWatch. 

[see also: Why should I care about Cop26?]

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The lip gloss does not, of course, change the risible nature of GWPF’s analyses. It contends that offshore wind costs are flatlining or even rising; the academic they cite has said explicitly that his work does not show this, and nowhere does GWPF explain what would make Britain the sole outlier in an entire world of plummeting renewable energy costs. Its report on house insulation literally pulls its central cost estimate out of thin air: “A sum of £5,000 per house is clearly far too low… £500,000… is clearly too high…the geometric mean of £50,000 per house will give a starting point.” The focus may have changed, but the current claims sit squarely in a long tradition of credibility absence, exemplified by contentions such as no country other than the UK will decarbonise, that a large-scale switch to wind generation would raise carbon emissions, and that more CO2 in the air would be good for humanity.

But numbers are not powerless simply because they have been plucked out of the air. No one in the UK who cares about a successful Cop26 or the UK’s net zero transition can afford to ignore the “Cost of Net Zero” crowd. Their numbers may be tiny (they claim 40 MPs as supporters but have produced no evidence for that); but then, they always were tiny. MPs such as Baker will always have a route into top-tier media, and elite access counts for a lot. And their claims have a populist truism at their core which makes them especially dangerous: because indeed no one can put a precise number on the investment needed to reach net zero. We know that the costs of not reaching net zero will be far higher, that the UK’s 30-year experience shows decarbonisation sits perfectly well with economic growth, and that governments take many decisions without knowing precisely the cost-benefit ratio: but populism is very good at shedding inconvenient context. 

Doubt based on selective truisms, propagated by wilfully ill-informed journalists and politicians, has a long and dishonourable history of obscuring the evidence-based case for decarbonisation. In the middle of a gas price spike, arguing that “we don’t know the cost of getting to net zero” will find traction in places that matter. Boris Johnson’s political jeopardy eases when Cop26 ends, his government’s commitments so far do not get the UK on track for net zero, and the two leading contenders to succeed him as party leader are no friends of decarbonisation. 

Take your eye off this particular ball at your peril.

Richard Black is an honorary research fellow at Imperial College London, and author of “Denied – the Rise and Fall of Climate Contrarianism