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Dominic Lawson: Talking Green Is easy; It’s Being Green That’s Hard

Dominic Lawson

People will balk at Johnson’s electric car diktat when they see the cost

Bursars tend to be robust, even tactless characters. In my school and college years they were often from a military background, which augmented the no-nonsense impression. Robust certainly describes the response of that authority the other day at St John’s College, Oxford, when slogan-shouting students occupied its 15th-century quad, declaring they wouldn’t leave until the college agreed to sell its shares in BP and Shell.

When they emailed Andrew Parker (the principal bursar) demanding a meeting to address their demands that St John’s “declares a climate emergency and immediately divests from fossil fuels”, his answer was perhaps not what they expected. “I am not able to arrange any divestment at short notice,” he wrote. “But I can arrange for the gas central heating in college to be switched off with immediate effect. Please let me know if you support this proposal.”

When a St John’s undergraduate complained he was being flippant, Parker responded that he was making a serious point: “It is all too easy to request others to do things that carry no personal cost to yourself. The question is whether you and others are prepared to make personal sacrifices to achieve the goals of environmental improvement (which I support as a goal).” This was not appreciated by the protest organiser, Fergus Green: “It’s January and it would be borderline dangerous to switch off the central heating.” Borderline hilarious, more like.

I thought of this farce, like something out of a Tom Sharpe campus novel, when the government announced a few days later that it would be bringing forward, by five years to 2035, the date by which we would no longer be allowed to purchase new cars that use fossil fuels, including hybrid vehicles. Given that currently even the smaller electric vehicles (EVs) cost about £10,000 more than their diesel or petrol equivalent, it is the government playing the part of the student demonstrators — only with real power — and the public who will be thinking as practically as any bursar.

The radio presenter Julia Hartley-Brewer represented the bursar in all of us when she questioned Michael Gove on this. Eight times she asked the immensely articulate cabinet minister how much more (than today’s petrol and diesel cars) it would cost to buy and drive electric vehicles in 15 years’ time. While he wouldn’t give any of the figures behind the government’s policy (either because they don’t exist or because if they did, they would be worthless), he insisted there would be “a net saving” for the public. More, he promised to buy “a slap-up meal at the restaurant of your choice” for Hartley-Brewer if he turned out to be wrong. Which would be nice for her, but not much consolation for the rest of us.

In fact the government can guarantee to make petrol or diesel relatively unaffordable — by whacking up the duty. That, however, would enrage above all the non-metropolitan poorer voters in the Midlands and northern England to whom the Conservatives say they owe their election victory, and whose concerns they insist are their highest priority.

As Rachel Wolf, co-author of the party’s 2019 manifesto, wrote on the ConservativeHome website, after the announcement on the early banning of cars with combustion engines in order to help achieve “net-zero” carbon emissions: “The public have no idea . . . how it [net zero] might change their life . . . They already think they pay a lot of tax, and are currently unprepared to pay lots more for the environment.” She went on to refer to the revolt in France when President Emmanuel Macron tried to implement swingeing increases in fuel costs “to save the planet”.

Actually, it’s far from obvious how Mother Earth will be mollified by a diktat to buy only electric vehicles — and not just because, while better for the air we breathe, they are, in terms of CO2 emissions, only as clean as the way the electric power itself is generated and stored.

Last June a group of scientists led by Professor Richard Herrington, the Natural History Museum’s head of earth science, warned the government that to replace all cars on British roads with EVs, UK demand for the batteries needed would require almost twice the world’s current yearly supply of cobalt, the total amount of neodymium produced globally every year, three-quarters of the world’s annual supply of lithium and at least half its copper supply. No prizes for guessing the effect of this (even if it were feasible) on the prices of these minerals, and therefore the ultimate cost to the consumer. And what about the CO2 emissions generated by this vast excavatory process (chiefly in the Democratic Republic of Congo, home to most of the world’s cobalt reserves)? According to Tim Worstall, a former trader in rare elements: “VW has released the comparative numbers for its new electric Golf against the diesel version. The all-clean, all-climate-friendly version must do 120,000km [75,000 miles]” to break even, “given the emissions required to make the thing.”

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