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How will we reach net zero?

The Uxbridge by-election has exposed how divided Britain still is over how to decarbonise the economy.

By Jonny Ball

This article was originally published on 4 August, it has been repromoted today (20 September) following the news that Rishi Sunak is considering a major shift on key climate action policies.

It’s looking like the Uxbridge and South Ruislip by-election could go down as one of the more consequential in recent history, setting off fractious debates that are highlighting splits on decarbonising the economy. How do we get to net zero? Who will pay? How does the government foster public support for a transition that will require billions of pounds of investment? (Indeed, the former chancellor Philip Hammond reckoned the true cost for Britain could be over a trillion.)

The standard response, particularly on the left, is to say that net zero is actually an economic opportunity rather than a threat. Big investments will yield big returns: high-value jobs, tax receipts, regional growth, productivity, energy security and economic resilience. That’s certainly the thinking behind “Bidenomics”. And yet the dividing lines are becoming more blurred.

This week Lord Deben (John Gummer to his friends), the Thatcher-era cabinet minister and now chair of the independent Climate Change Committee, has written a piece for Spotlight that says the government’s decision to grant a hundred new oil and gas licenses for extraction in the North Sea is “unworthy” of the Conservative Party. The government’s own adviser on climate writes that it will leave the UK’s hard-won global climate leadership credentials in tatters.

Environmental experts and eco-aware Tories have lined up to condemn the new licenses. Shaun Spiers, executive director of the Green Alliance, puts the decision down to “electoral politics, not sound policy”. There’s disagreement about the electoral calculus, though. As Sebastian Payne, a wannabe Tory candidate and director of the think tank Onward, has written, scrapping net-zero targets could cost the Conservative Party 1.3 million votes. Net zero “is too important to be left to radicals”, he adds. Thanks, Sebastian.

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

But it’s not that simple. A snap YouGov poll after the announcement asked if the government was “right or wrong to issue new licenses for oil and gas”. Forty-two per cent said right, against only 27 per cent for wrong. Data aficionado John Burn-Murdoch has a great Twitter thread showing that the British public are more supportive of environmental policies than voters in the US, Germany or France. But that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re against the new licenses policy. A reminder, perhaps, that most of the British public has better things to do than follow the minutiae of policy debates and adopt consistent lines accordingly.

Rishi Sunak, meanwhile, says he wants to “max out” the North Sea in a bid to improve energy security and prioritise domestic production over foreign imports. Grant Shapps, the Energy Security Secretary, has said Labour’s position of barring new licenses if and when they enter government  is “mad”, that it threatens 200,000 jobs in the sector, deprives the Exchequer of revenues, and leaves Britain “at the behest of foreign nations”.

For good measure, the Prime Minister trolled opponents on Twitter by claiming that Labour wanted to “protect Russian jobs” by opposing new drilling. That puts him in about the same political arena as Gary Smith – not a global warming sceptic of the Tory right, but the leader of the GMB trade union. He wants Labour not to cave into what he calls the “bourgeois” environment lobby and “secure our energy supply” to “face down threats from authoritarian regimes”.

Smith cites “trade union comrades from the USA” who support the renewable-friendly agenda of Joe Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act, as well as the president’s continued granting of oil and gas extraction licenses, which outpaced Donald Trump’s in his first two years in office. “They believe in plans, not bans,” Smith says. Similarly, Sharon Graham of Unite has warned that “we will not let the workers in oil and gas become the miners of tomorrow”.

As the dash to a green economy becomes ever more urgent, it seems the debates on how we get there have only just begun.

[See also: When should Rishi Sunak call a general election?]

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