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Net Zero referendum: Paying for climate action mustn’t become a generation war

Brexit thrived on stoking divisions between old and young. Nigel Farage’s attempts to abandon climate action risk doing likewise.

By India Bourke

Seeing the British actor Hugh Grant trending on Twitter has provided a spark of light relief in recent weeks. Attempts to comprehend the incredible transition of Ukraine’s Volodymyr Zelensky, from an actor playing the president to wartime leader, have led Brits to imagine Grant making a similar transformation — and to marvel all the more at Zelensky’s rise. However, this weekend, the British actor has made the news news for an intervention of his own.

On Saturday Nigel Farage repeated his call for a referendum on the government’s net-zero ambitions. The former Brexit Party leader outlined opposition to Britain’s 2050 target for reaching carbon neutrality in a Mail on Sunday article, and introduced his new anti-net zero campaign, Britain Means Business.

Farage’s new initiative, following on from Leave Means Leave, which helped to lead Britain out of the EU, describes the government’s flagship green policy as a “scandal of epic proportions”, and argues that paying for the green transition will only lead to “zero” money in people’s bank accounts. “Without any debate, our energy bills have been loaded with green subsidies,” he writes, urging the country to frack for gas instead (Conveniently ignoring that gas is sold at international prices wherever it is produced, and so fracking would not lead to lower bills, just as green subsidies are not responsible for raising them).

In response, Grant let rip. “Russian warship — go f*** yourself,” the actor tweeted. By likening Farage’s campaign to a Russian warship, Grant suggests that abandoning the green transition would further Putin’s interests and harm energy security. And he is right to do so: a speedy shift away from fossil fuels and the petrostates that produce them is clearly in the interests of both international stability and climate safety.

Yet while it is easy to dismiss Farage’s latest hobbyhorse as a hopeless non-starter (geopolitics is on the side of renewables, as are all of the major UK parties’ manifestos), recent developments suggest Britain should still be on its toes.

Firstly, many of the people advocating for an end to climate action are the ones who successfully brought about the referendum on leaving the EU. Alongside Farage, the influential former Brexit minister Steve Baker is part of the Net Zero Scrutiny Group, a group of Tory MPs, and a trustee of the Global Warming Policy Forum, a climate science-denying think tank. Meanwhile, numerous MPs receive money or gifts in kind directly from the fossil fuel industry.

Secondly, and perhaps more worryingly still, there are signs that the Brexiteers’ old tricks are starting to prove similarly successful in stoking division and confusion.

Last week, a Daily Telegraph headline reporting that peers in the House of Lords want to “make the younger generation pay net zero bill” was met with anger online. The article referenced a report from the Industry and Regulators Committee, which makes recommendations on how to fund the government’s net-zero aims. These included calling on the government to reconsider its opposition to borrowing “due to its suitability for this type of investment financing, and because future generations will be the main beneficiaries of net zero investment”. 

As my colleague Rachel Cunliffe powerfully points out, pitching borrowing as a solution to the intergenerational unfairness of today’s higher energy bills is clearly a misstep by the Lords at a time when the young are having to carry ever more responsibility for the old. “The idea that no one should have to pay for services that don’t directly benefit them is a novel one — and utterly at odds with the very concept of general taxation,” she writes. “Imagine the outrage if it were argued that under-40s should get a rebate on their tax bill because they use the NHS at a fraction of the rate of the over-80s.”

But ultimately the blame for this negative narrative would seem to lie more with the UK’s right-wing media than the peers. While the peers have suggested introducing borrowing, they only did so as one of a raft of measures to help spread energy investment costs. These range from continuing with green charges to energy bills, to carbon pricing and investment subsidies, and are pitched as complimentary, not mutually exclusive, policies.

And borrowing for climate action has support across the political spectrum. Left-wing think tanks such as the New Economics Foundation have urged the government to implement the very borrowing that the peers suggested. “Provided their spending supports productive investment — the cornerstone of the Green New Deal — any arguments against borrowing are based on political ideology rather than economic fact,” a 2019 report said.

All of which suggests that the committee’s recommendation of increasing government borrowing was made as much on behalf of the young (present and future), as against them. “We heard from witnesses that charges added to consumer bills would be insufficient to fund all aspects of the transition,” the committee’s Labour chairman, Clive Hollick, told the New Statesman. “Paying for the net-zero transition through energy bills is also regressive as the less well-off spend more of their income on heating and lighting their homes than those on higher incomes.”

In this context, the negative coverage that the Telegraph‘s headline helped to drum up can only have served to undermine the attempt to pressure the government into doing more to address the climate crisis — and aided the interests of anti-net zero campaigners as a consequence.

Boris Johnson, the Prime Minister, is clearly rattled by the political consequences of the rising cost of global gas prices, and has already suggested that western nations should be given a “climate change pass” in order to wean themselves off Russian gas by increasing gas production elsewhere. (Despite the Business Secretary, Kwasi Kwarteng, saying that domestic fracking is not the answer.)

The British public must be on high alert to such sleights of hand by those to wish to delay action on the greatest threat of all. Failing to do so now would truly be a betrayal of generations yet to come.

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