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Abandoning net zero would be a historic mistake

The Uxbridge by-election has triggered a debate on decarbonisation, but the only question should be how we move faster.

By Alistair Phillips-Davies

There are few policy areas in which long-term investments yield results that enable politicians to create good jobs, lower bills for families and businesses, strengthen energy security and tackle climate change, but net zero does all three. For fifteen years there has been a rare, broad political consensus on the need to decarbonise our economy. When the first Climate Change Act was passed by the Labour government in 2008, 99 per cent of MPs voted in favour of it. In 2019, when the Conservatives amended it to make a legally binding commitment to reach net zero by 2050, there were no dissenters in the House of Commons. YouGov’s tracker consistently indicates a strong majority of voters believe in climate change – a view likely to be strengthened by the terrible wildfires in southern Europe recently.

Until recently it seemed net zero was the settled will of the British people. But then came Uxbridge.

The unpopularity of one policy – the expansion of the Ultra Low Emissions Zone (Ulez) to the outskirts of London – in one by-election, has prompted some political circles to question whether the pace of decarbonisation should be slowed. This would be a historic mistake that would be lamented by future generations.

The transition to net zero won’t be achieved without fraught debates. There are undoubtedly some areas of policymaking that may require some tough choices, and up to now politicians have generally shied away from policies in areas like heating and private transport that could affect households directly and visibly. This is where Ulez strikes a nerve.

But we can already see from the exponential growth in electric cars – where demand outstrips supply – that the answer is to create better, more desirable products that happen also to have lower carbon emissions. Incentives matter. We need more carrot and less stick.

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The key enabler of net zero is the power system. When you have net zero power, you can use it to decarbonise the rest of the economy. Through clear political commitments and progressive policymaking, the UK has established itself as a world leader on this. We are decarbonising our power sector faster than any other developed economy, building the world’s largest offshore wind market in the process.

[See also: Why the Tories are rowing back on net zero]

The recent energy crisis highlighted the relative value of building cleaner homegrown energy for both household bills and energy security, shielding consumers from volatile international gas markets. Right now, in the waters of the North Sea, SSE engineers are building the largest offshore wind farm in the world at Dogger Bank. When complete, it will generate clean homegrown electricity at prices that are significantly cheaper than we’ve seen in recent trends. The project has also created and supported more than 2,000 jobs in the north-east, helping to revitalise communities and giving workers valuable skills that sustain lifelong careers.

But Dogger Bank is just one example of the benefits of backing net zero. We will need flexible power too. Currently, renewable generation cannot power the entire grid. While we invest in the green transition, carbon capture and storage for industries such as steel making where it will be hard to eliminate emissions can help to mitigate the effects while boosting local economies. In Keadby in Lincolnshire, a village originally built around a coal plant, shovels are ready to be put to work on a brand new power station with carbon capture and storage technology supporting hundreds more jobs. The same is true in Peterhead in the north-east of Scotland.

In the Highlands, at Coire Glas, exploratory works are under way to build the largest pumped hydro scheme in the UK for more than 40 years. If given the final go ahead, it will more than double the UK’s electricity storage, helping to keep the lights on in an energy system increasingly led by renewables.

Coire Glas, Keadby and Peterhead are all waiting for positive government decisions before they can continue. While much short-term attention has been on the approval of new oil and gas licenses, it is carbon capture and storage infrastructure that offers the long-term prize: the ability to abate emissions while also enabling a more sustainable hydrogen economy to be developed using many of the same technologies.

Public debate should be about how we can move faster. This week’s announcements aside, there is a whole industry waiting for government action to unlock tens of billions of pounds more in good green growth from the Shetlands to the Isle of Wight.

With an election looming there is always a risk that decisions become clouded by short-term political imperatives. But it is vital to remember not just the costs but also the long-term benefits of driving towards net zero: saving households money; creating good, high-wage, high-productivity jobs; and creating resilience against external energy shocks.

Future generations will not thank us for hitting the brakes now.

[See also: Will carbon capture help us reach net zero?]

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Select and enter your email address Your weekly guide to the best writing on ideas, politics, books and culture every Saturday. The best way to sign up for The Saturday Read is via saturdayread.substack.com The New Statesman's quick and essential guide to the news and politics of the day. The best way to sign up for Morning Call is via morningcall.substack.com Our Thursday ideas newsletter, delving into philosophy, criticism, and intellectual history. The best way to sign up for The Salvo is via thesalvo.substack.com Stay up to date with NS events, subscription offers & updates. Weekly analysis of the shift to a new economy from the New Statesman's Spotlight on Policy team. The best way to sign up for The Green Transition is via spotlightonpolicy.substack.com
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