If the Government wants to avoid falling victim to a huge public backlash once the cost of its zero carbon promises become apparent, it should be setting realistic targets.
A Conservative Prime Minister who has renounced his former climate change scepticism, toughened Britain’s targets for reducing carbon emissions and thrown every effort into promoting the great ecological beanfeast that is COP26, to be held in Glasgow in November – you would think that climate campaigners would be performing cartwheels. Yet far from it: their enthusiasm seems to be stuck in the ice age.
Addressing the House of Commons select committee on Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy on Tuesday, Jamie Clark, executive director of the charity Climate Outreach, warned that the Government risks repeating the errors made by previous administrations – hyping the event as the “last chance to save the world”, with the result that the public ends up taking it about as seriously as shoppers took the man who spent decades walking up and down Oxford Street with a sandwich board carrying the words “prepare to meet thy doom”. People remember that we only apparently had five years to save the Earth 15 years ago. The fact that we are still here – in spite of carbon emissions that have continued to rise – somewhat undermines the message. Advertisementhttps://imasdk.googleapis.com/js/core/bridge3.453.0_en.html#goog_1937173210Advertisement : 5 sec
But it isn’t just the language; government policy itself is wrong. Besides being sceptical of climate change, the Prime Minister was once a strong critic of target culture. I should know, because as leader-writer on Johnson’s Spectator it was a regular part of my job to attack Tony Blair’s obsession with targets, pointing out, for example, that the target of having no-one wait in A&E for more than four hours had had the perverse outcome whereby some hospitals had redesignated corridors as “clinical assessment units”.
Yet on climate change Johnson has eagerly adopted the Blair way of doing things. He reckons that by setting a legally-binding target like he did last week – for a 78 percent cut in emissions on 1990 levels by 2035 – it will provide an incentive for private enterprise and public bodies to make it happen. Somehow, the necessary technology will be invented and developed, and the public will be persuaded to change long-established habits. We will all conform, for example, to the Committee on Climate Change’s edict to eat less meat and dairy foods.
Yet you can’t simply assume that technology will come into being just because an incentive is created to invent it. In supporting targets for net zero, people often quote John F Kennedy’s audacious promise to put a man on the Moon by the end of the 1960s; they are less keen to remind us of Nasa’s promise later in that decade to put a man on Mars by 1980, or how 50 years ago we were supposedly on the brink of having unlimited quantities of virtually free energy thanks to nuclear fusion.
Sometimes technology surprises us on the upside – and sometimes it disappoints. No amount of target-setting can overcome physics. Will we be able to decarbonise steel and cement, on a commercial scale? Will we master carbon capture and storage to be practical and safe, so that the CO2 doesn’t leak out of underground chambers or wherever else it is stored? We don’t yet know. What should be obvious, on the other hand, is that we will not be able to achieve net-zero emissions without these technologies – at least not unless we are content with the Extinction Rebellion option, to reduce ourselves to pre-industrial poverty.
And of course, as with Blair’s targets, perverse outcomes are all too likely.