Ben Pile: Come clean about the cost of Net Zero

By Ben Pile, Spiked

Going carbon-neutral would mean a drastic reduction in living standards, but no politician can admit it.

The UK parliament’s Public Accounts Committee (PAC) published a report last week that found ‘there is no coordinated plan with clear milestones towards achieving’ the 2050 ‘Net Zero’ emissions-reduction target. This lack of a plan, the committee claimed, made it ‘difficult for parliament and the general public to understand or scrutinise’ progress towards the goal.

Select Committees such as the PAC are populated by MPs from all parties, and are one of the main mechanisms parliament has to hold government departments, ministers and the government to account. But while the PAC rightly points out that the government has no idea about how to achieve the Net Zero target, neither do MPs, who bear just as much responsibility for this.

Of course there is no plan for how to reach Net Zero. Just as with the Climate Change Act (CCA) 2008, which demanded emissions reduction of 80 per cent, the Net Zero target was set long before anyone had ever thought about how to actually achieve it. The political consensus that gave us the Net Zero goal is confounded by three factors: the lack of a global Net Zero agreement, the lack of available technology and the lack of popular support.

Around the time MPs signed off on the CCA in 2008, public disengagement with politics was at record levels. This provided an open door to the green lobby and other campaigning organisations. These special interests claimed that climate policy – including generous subsidies for green technology – would deliver green innovation and economic revitalisation. They also claimed that ‘saving the planet’ would become a popular concern and would mobilise public opinion. These promises turned out to be empty.

The problem is crystallised in the PAC report’s summary:

As much as 62 per cent of the future reduction in emissions will rely on individual choices and behaviours, from day-to-day lifestyle choices to one-off purchases such as replacing boilers that use fossil fuels or buying an electric vehicle. Government has not yet properly engaged with the public on the substantial behaviour changes that achieving Net Zero will require.’

But if 62 per cent of emissions reduction is to ‘rely on individual choices and behaviours’, then Net Zero policies will necessarily require the removal of the public’s ‘choices’ and the state regulation of their ‘behaviours’. And because there is no like-for-like, emissions-free replacement for your domestic heating, for your car, or for the many other everyday activities that require energy, the inevitable outcome of Net Zero is a reduction in most people’s living standards and quality of life.

For example, green advocates claim that new technology can end our reliance on the gas grid. And the government has announced that the installation of gas boilers will be banned in the 2030s to encourage the use of heat pumps. But there are severe downsides to this. Heat pumps typically cost many times what domestic gas boilers cost – at least 3.5 times for the unit itself, not including installation costs. They require much larger radiators than most homes already have, and noisy heat-exchange units (identical to air-conditioning) also need to be installed on the outside of every home. And because heat pumps are less able to produce heat on demand, homes in which they are installed require significant insulation.

Moreover, heat pumps are categorically not equivalent products to boilers. ‘Gas boilers heat your home at the flick of a switch, whereas a heat pump takes 24 hours and heats the home to 17 to 19 degrees’, Chris Stark, the chief executive of the Climate Change Committee, recently admitted. Not being able to heat your house to room temperature, ‘will require an attitudinal shift’, Stark added.

But even if people’s ‘attitudes’ could be engineered to fit the designs of civil servants, it is not ‘attitudes’ that will be needed to provide the tens of thousands it costs to turn an ordinary home into a Net Zero compliant property. A study looking at Nottingham City Council, which retrofitted 10 very ordinary homes, found that a small house required nearly £90,000 to make it ‘low carbon’.

No explanation has been offered by the green camp to show that these costs can be reduced, except for assumptions about economies of scale. But this may be an unsafe assumption as green policies will push up prices of construction, too. ‘Retrofitting’ may well end up costing households close to the equivalent of a century of today’s domestic energy bills, for the promise of modest (if any) savings in future energy bills.

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