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The Green Road to Serfdom: ‘Voters will rebel against ‘net zero’ when the costs hit’


Voters will rebel against ‘net zero’ when the costs hit

Deciding who has been the worst British prime minister of the 21st century (so far) is tough, but Theresa May (2016–19) strengthened her strong claim to this title shortly ahead of her ignominious departure from office. Desperate to secure a “legacy,” she saw to it that Britain became the first major country to legally bind itself to reaching net-zero greenhouse-gas (GHG) emissions by 2050. That is, the nation committed itself to releasing no more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere than it removes. Quite how this ambition could be fulfilled or what fulfilling it would cost was unclear, but no matter: This potentially enormous commitment passed into law with support across the political spectrum, astonishingly little scrutiny, and a great deal of self-congratulation. The 2050 target date reflected a widely held view that this is what it would take to contain the increase in the average global temperature since pre-industrial times to a more or less bearable 1.5 degrees Celsius.

Lemmings, so the myth goes, don’t leap alone. Other countries from Japan to Switzerland to Canada have followed the U.K.’s example, including its neglect of critical thinking. Cost–benefit analysis is for “deniers.” All EU member states are obliged to hit net zero by 2050. Germany, undaunted by its disastrous Energiewende (an appallingly expensive switch to renewables, combined with a phaseout of nuclear power, and — what could go wrong — reliance on Russian natural gas), has opted for 2045 instead. The U.S. has (following the procedures set out in the Paris climate accords) committed to achieving net zero by 2050. Although this commitment has not been incorporated into domestic law, the Biden administration is behaving as though it had, whether through its promotion of legislation such as the Inflation Reduction Act or through regulatory changes that have the advantage of avoiding too much democratic supervision. A growing number of U.S. states and cities have joined in, looking for dramatic reductions in their GHG emissions by mid century or before. And the U.S. is not the only country where such efforts are occurring below the national level. Thus the U.N.’s Race to Net Zero is targeted at non-state “stakeholders.” Participants include businesses, cities, regions, and investors, all expected to take “rigorous and immediate action” to get to net zero by 2050, “at the latest.”

The list of today’s net-zero nations — Bhutan, Suriname, Panama, Guyana, Comoros, Gabon, Madagascar, and Niue — is a deterrent, not an inspiration. Before agreeing to any binding obligation to arrive at net zero, many less-prosperous countries, including four of the six largest GHG emitters (Brazil, India, Russia, and China, the GHG champ) are saying to the West, “After you,” if that. Indeed, the Russian, Indian, and Chinese commitments, whatever they are worth, are to get to net zero one or two decades after 2050. All three countries are capable of assessing climate risk and have come to the reasonable conclusion that an increase of a touch under 3 degrees Celsius over pre-industrial levels by the end of this century (the current best estimate) is not an existential threat. This means that the climate weighs less heavily in their broader policy mix. That said, Beijing realizes that the Western world’s climate fixation offers excellent geopolitical and commercial opportunities. It will try to exploit both to the fullest, and the West’s other rivals will do their best to follow suit. The key position — discussed below, that China has established in the market for solar panels, and may achieve in wind turbines and, to no small degree, electric vehicles (EVs) — is, with the West set on retreating from oil and gas, of strategic as well as commercial value.

The campaign to reach net zero by 2050 is best seen as a giant exercise in central planning, bolstered by apocalypticism, puritanism, and, lurking there somewhere, distaste for the achievements of the West. Speed (it’s a “race,” remember) is essential, deadlines are pulled out of thin air, orders are barked from above, dissent is heresy, targets bear little connection to economic, technological, or political reality, and logic is displaced by frenzy: “C” no longer follows “B,” “B” no longer follows “A.” Those struggling to understand how policy-makers could insist on the urgent electrification of everything (or so it often feels) at the same time as they weaken the resilience of already-strained electricity grids need look no further.


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Working toward net zero has attracted strong public support in Europe and more-cautious approval in the U.S. Spooked by endlessly repeated prophecies of climate doom, people like the idea of a grand project to help the planet but have been mostly unaware of its less appealing implications and unduly reassured by the thought that 2050 was decades away. But there have been warning signs that, when net zero begins to bite hard, voters will bite back. Polls show public backing for net zero but limited enthusiasm for paying for it. According to an Ipsos poll taken in 20 countries worldwide and published in April 2023, only about 30 percent of people (25 percent in the U.S.) would be prepared to pay “more” of their income in taxes “to help prevent climate change.” “More” is not the same as “a lot,” and the bill for net zero would be paid not only in steeper taxes but in a higher cost of living. However, 55 percent of respondents to a YouGov poll conducted last year in the U.K. would support policies to reduce carbon emissions only “if they do not result in additional costs for ordinary people,” an impossibility. At around the same time, fewer than half of Americans polled by the AP-NORC Center and the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago said they would support a monthly carbon fee on their energy use, and, of those in favor, nearly a fifth said that the charge should not be more than a dollar.

And serious pushback has begun. The protests in 2018–19 by France’s gilets jaunes (yellow vests) were initially triggered by the prospect of a fuel tax inspired by climate policy. Dutch farmers followed their example, alarmed by the threat to their livelihoods from rules designed, in part, to combat climate change. The BBB (BoerBurgerBeweging), an agrarian party of the Right formed in 2019 in response to the protests, has benefited from more-generalized discontent and, drawing votes from across the Netherlands, it became the largest party in the Dutch senate last year. An impressive showing in November’s elections for the legislature’s more powerful lower house may yet — it’s complicated — lead to the formation of a government by a (more or less) populist coalition less supportive of today’s green agenda.

Since December, there has been a wave of protests by farmers elsewhere in the EU. The causes vary, but in the Czech Republic, France, Germany, Lithuania, Romania, and Spain, they include opposition to climate-related policies.

The drive to hit net zero by 2050 is unlikely to stabilize the climate in time (the target date may even now be beyond reach), but there’s a clear risk that it may destabilize the West, not least because of the harm it will do to its economies. For instance, it will push up a wide range of prices, whether because of the cost of the mandates that come with it or from the impact of an energy squeeze as the use of fossil fuels is curtailed. As it is, high energy costs (some of which are attributable to climate policy) are already sparking fears about “deindustrialization,” above all in Germany, where energy-intensive industrial companies have been relocating production abroad. To take one dismal statistic among many: German chemical production hit a 28-year low in 2023. The country’s increasingly far-right party AfD (Alternative für Deutschland) — which has been polling in second place — has suffered no harm for favoring both fracking and nuclear energy and opposing “green madness.”