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Net Zero debate is healthy, but only if held in good faith

For those working in climate and energy policy in the United Kingdom (UK), the country is now in a ‘post-Uxbridge’ world. After the unpopular ‘ULEZ’ (ultra low emissions zone) expansion championed by Sadiq Khan, London Mayor, delivered a shock by-election victory for the Conservative Party, politicians and commentators seized the initiative to campaign for a wider rollback of Net Zero policy, relating especially to electric vehicles and clean heating technologies. A debate is necessary and healthy, but to be productive it must be held in good faith.

The recent campaign against certain Net Zero policies has seen some success. After almost a month, His Majesty’s (HM) Government’s tone has shifted undoubtedly. Rishi Sunak, the Prime Minister, announced a review of ‘anti-car’ schemes. Although awarding more licences for North Sea oil and gas exploration has been policy since April 2022, there was little by way of announcements favouring renewables during HM Government’s ‘energy week’. Instead, the emphasis was on fossil fuels.

Then again, not much has changed in terms of policy. HM Government defended the 2030 new petrol and diesel car sale ban following a week of speculation, following the threat of industry backlash against watering down targets. There have not yet been any suggestions it would water down its ambition to phase out new gas boilers.

But there are now two debates which have reached Cabinet level. The first is whether Net Zero and environmental policy is an electoral asset for the governing Conservative Party, which still faces a steep and narrow path to election victory next year. While some conservative and libertarian commentators argue it is an electoral liability, they have been met with refreshed calls not to row back from the influential Andy Street, the West Midlands Mayor, Therese Coffey, Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, and several Conservative backbenchers.

The second debate – how to manage the costs and reap the rewards presented by the transition to a more sustainable economy – is more important for the UK. The debate is, however, somewhat stuck, as both sides refuse to acknowledge the position of each other. Those who favour environmental protections point to the public’s consistent strong majority in support of Net Zero, attributing it to the benefits of moving away from fossil fuels. Those who are more sceptical fairly retort that support falls when costs are included.

Public popularity for a policy being vulnerable to costs is not unique to Net Zero and the environment by any means. As Steve Akehurst, a polling expert specialising in public attitudes to climate, recently found, British citizens are more likely to accept costs to tackle climate change than they are to improve the education system, build new homes, or secure new jobs. However, more would rather accept higher costs stemming from building more hospitals, reducing NHS waiting lists, and tackling crime.

Short termism and political convenience risks undermining a needed debate about the costs and benefits of Net Zero. A bad faith debate would also undermine the UK’s global brand diplomatically and economically.

The debate has become stuck because both sides do not want to accept the basic truths the other side prioritises. Net Zero sceptics often fail to acknowledge the costs and dire consequences of unmitigated climate change, which the Integrated Review and its Refresh labelled Britain’s priority thematic risk. And they ignore the reality that, while arbitrary targets are imperfect, they are the best answer which international diplomacy has so far managed to muster to meet an unprecedented global challenge which requires commitments from every country, even if circumstances in the UK are different to India or Kenya.

Meanwhile, those who champion Net Zero and other environmental policies often fail to acknowledge or admit the big costs Net Zero will impose on the average citizen. For example, constraint costs – the costs of balancing the power grid – alone are expected to rise to £2.5 billion per year this decade as Britain transitions to a decentralised, renewables-based energy system. Upgrading grid capacity to deliver power to heat pumps and electric cars will also require billions in investment. The decarbonisation of heat also risks the poorest bearing mounting costs of running gas boilers as the more well-off electrify to reap the benefits of more efficient heat pumps.

The mould is being broken by a handful of thought leaders. Helen Thompson, Professor of Political Economy at Cambridge University, has warned about the extreme challenges of making Britain’s economic foundations and structures more sustainable environmentally – no less than a reinvention of civilization. Ed Conway, author of Material World, has also stressed the need for fairer policies in achieving the immense opportunities Net Zero has to offer.

Honesty in this debate is crucial, as it could be the difference between Britain’s ability to be prosperous and secure, or not. The UK will not be competitive economically without embracing green industries and technologies where it has an advantage, such as carbon capture, offshore wind, and green finance. But an economy also needs cheap energy to grow, and if the energy transition is not carried out as efficiently as possible, higher system costs may outweigh the benefits of renewables’ cheap wholesale power production.

Short termism and political convenience risks undermining a needed debate about the costs and benefits of Net Zero. A bad faith debate would also undermine the UK’s global brand diplomatically and economically. Alongside the artificial intelligence revolution and the return of state-based competition, the climate transition holds many ‘known unknowns’ and ‘unknown unknowns’ which HM Government will need to respond to and navigate, whether politicians are ready or not. HM Government should be ready, and clear on what its objectives are, even as the means to reach them are rightfully scrutinised.

Jack Richardson is James Blyth Associate Fellow at the Council on Geostrategy. He is also Head of Energy and Climate at Onward.

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