Why the net zero cost is too high for the country – and for Boris too
Huge windmills over the North Sea would feed cheap and reliable electricity into the grid. Energy-efficient boilers would bring perfectly insulated apartments to a comfortable temperature even in the depths of winter.
Electric cars would hum along the streets, using a fraction of the power of their petrol-powered predecessors; Bullet trains whisked us away on vacation while the newspapers were full of stories of democratizing reforms in the old petrostates as their oil revenues dwindled.
Or as Boris Johnson himself put it in 2020: “You cook your breakfast on hydrogen energy before you get in your electric car, after charging it overnight with Midlands batteries. The air around you is cleaner; Trucks, trains, ships and planes run on hydrogen or synthetic fuel.”
In a parallel universe, the UK, along with most of Europe, would have been on track to meet its net-zero targets by this year, with clean, cheap and renewable energy replacing fossil fuels at lower cost and with greater certainty. Johnson would join other leaders from around the world in basking in approval for saving the planet while improving the quality of life.
The problem is that things don’t go as planned in this universe. Instead, we are entering an increasingly dystopian world of soaring gas prices, energy shortages, fuel poverty, warnings of blackouts and school closures, and perhaps worst of all, we are being blackmailed by Russia’s President Putin, who is manipulating the energy market like he is threatening to invade Ukraine. We are in the midst of an unfolding energy crisis the likes of which Europe has not seen since the 1970s.
Everyone – well, almost everyone – agrees that climate change is a serious problem that needs to be addressed.
“Humanity has long since passed the climate change clock,” Johnson warned us last year. “It is one minute to midnight on this doomsday clock and we must act now.” Yet it is also becoming increasingly apparent that the speed of this transition is becoming increasingly expensive. It’s creating a cost of living crisis that’s only going to get worse. It tears apart political structures. And perhaps most of all, it has undermined energy security and bestowed tremendous geopolitical power on a new, aggressive Russia.
We need to start asking if net zero is still worth it — or at least if we need to slow it down. And, more urgently, whether it will be his commitment to net zero – “to keep that promise to the letter” – that brings Johnson down. 12 months ago it might have seemed like the right thing to do. But the world has changed fundamentally since then – and soon government policies will have to change too.
“Even if we are only the second or third country in the world to reach net zero, how much it will cost us financially and politically would make a big difference,” says David Davis, the former Brexit Secretary.
“It’s the obsession with being the world leader that’s really costing us a lot,” he adds.
It may have been widely expected, but Thursday’s lifting of the energy price cap will nonetheless have delivered a brutal shock to millions of households. In one fell swoop, energy regulator Ofgem raised the price cap by 54 per cent – taking the average annual household bill to £1,971: an increase of £700.
Chancellor Rishi Sunak stepped in with a package of measures to help the most vulnerable, including tax breaks and loans to utility companies. But it will still hit Central England in the pocket. There are already stories of extra blankets being bought, the heating turned off and food budgets cut to deal with the aftermath.
Worse, on the same day the Bank of England hiked interest rates for the second time in two months and more were to come, pushing up mortgage bills. The bank forecasts inflation will reach an alarming 7.2 percent this year, well ahead of a 4 percent annual rise in wages, meaning real living standards are now falling at one of the fastest rates on record.