It’s been a big week in the race to net zero. On Monday, 18 September, the world’s climate policymakers descended on New York for a pre-Cop conference warm-up. Running concurrently with the UN General Assembly, Climate Week NYC hosted a range of key figures in the net zero world, including several familiar characters from the UK’s green transition. The Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, the Ofgem chief executive, Jonathan Brearley, and the Tory MP and climate aficionado, Chris Skidmore, all featured as panellists over two days of climate discussion.
Across the Atlantic a storm was brewing. A story leaked to the BBC on Tuesday evening revealed plans for a Rishi Sunak backtrack. The Prime Minister would be watering down several of the UK’s net zero commitments, including delaying the ban on new petrol and diesel cars by five years and cancelling energy efficiency requirements. (It also included Sunak “scrapping” a raft of policies – including a meat tax – that everyone is pretty certain didn’t actually exist.)
Rowing back on the UK’s net zero measures while the majority of your environmentalist colleagues are out of the country is a shrewd move. But it doesn’t stop them having an opinion. Skidmore, who led the government’s “Mission Zero” independent review, said the announcement will “potentially destabilise business confidence”. He added that “we have the potential to seize an economic opportunity as many countries are doing, rather than letting it slip through our fingers”. The former environment minister, Zac Goldsmith, agreed. He accused the Prime Minister of “dismantling” the UK’s credibility on climate. At the Conservative Environment Network, the director Sam Hall described the announcement as “unnecessary”.
Some commentators have questioned whether all this can be traced back to the saga of the Ultra Low Emission Zone. In the Uxbridge and South Ruislip by-election earlier this year, the Conservatives battled Labour on the subject of carbon emissions to surprisingly hold Boris Johnson’s old seat. But it’s likely the government’s net zero cool-down has been brewing for some time.
After listening to some of this week’s international discussions in New York, Sunak’s U-turn sounds pretty jarring.
His announcement was caveated with a promise to be “honest” to the British people about the “difficult choices” we need to make to get to net zero. But his argument that the UK can’t be expected to front the immediate cost of installing heat pumps or retrofitting their home reads as disingenuous. Measures like home retro-fitting, and getting the electricity grid to run entirely zero-carbon (and thereby breaking our addiction to expensive, imported gas) will save consumers billions, according to the Office for Budget Responsibility. Investment in green technology is stimulating a boom in manufacturing jobs and rapid economic growth in the US. It should be posed as an investment, not an expense.
This was precisely the case made by several figures in New York. In a frank discussion, Brearley told Climate Week NYC delegates that “what customers in Europe… have been through in the past two years has been close to devastating”. He described customers’ “genuine distress” at the astronomical rise in energy bills, from an average of £1,000 per year prior to the fuel crisis, to £2,500 per year at the end of 2022.
At the UN Climate Ambition Summit in New York, Janet Yellen, the US Treasury secretary, made a similar point. She described the “significant economic costs” arising from global warming, and added that climate change presents a great investment opportunity. Yellen concluded: “The need for action is urgent.”
The economic case for pushing back net zero targets is “analytically very weak”, Brearley said. He explained that coming out of the energy crisis, policymakers, politicians and regulators in the UK must act quickly. Arguing that we should embrace risk and accept cost in order to act quickly, Brearley added that we need “pace over perfection”.
He’s right. Time really is running out. But with the government’s new-found penchant for dithering and delay, missing our legally binding 2050 net zero target is looking more likely than not.
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