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Dominic Lawson: The rush to ‘Net Zero’ will most harm those Boris Johnson pledged to prioritise

Dominic Lawson, The Sunday Times

Of the 10 million jobs threatened by the UK government’s Net Zero commitment, far and away the greatest concentration are in ‘red wall’ constituencies.

You think the government’s policies over Covid-19 have been confused and contradictory? Compared with those it is pursuing in the field of energy and industry, they have been a model of good sense and intellectual rigour. But while shortcomings in the former are revealed within weeks, in mortality figures, flaws in energy policy take years to emerge — by which time the politicians responsible have comfortably retired from the scene.

But there are already straws in the wind. So to speak. Last week — as is not unusual in a British January — temperatures dropped below freezing, while wind speeds also dwindled. Result? To quote Tuesday’s edition of The Guardian: “Electricity market prices have surged tenfold in a day to reach a record high of £1,000 per megawatt hour … wind turbines come to a virtual standstill only weeks after setting a new generation record.” According to one trader quoted in the article, the UK “is at much greater risk of blackouts this winter than the National Grid has forecast”.

It is wind power on which the government has staked this country’s energy future. Boris Johnson boasted absurdly that we would become the “Saudi Arabia of wind”, seemingly oblivious to the fact that the Saudis were enriched because they were able to export their oil globally and at vast proft margins. The effect of increasing our dependency on indigenous wind will only add to the likelihood of the sort of market panic we witnessed last week — and of blackouts.

This was set out with painful clarity by the late government chief scientific adviser Professor David McKay in 2016, 11 days before his death: “Because time is getting thinner and thinner I should call a spade a spade … There is this appalling delusion people have that we can take this thing [renewables] and we can just scale it up and if there is a slight issue of it not adding up, we can just do energy efficiency. Humanity really does need to pay attention to arithmetic and the laws of physics.”

There are also the laws of economics. When launching his 10-point plan for a “green industrial revolution” (there are always 10, because prime ministers think they are Moses) Johnson promised a “green recovery — with high-skilled, high paid jobs”, and even gave precise numbers: 60,000 new jobs in offshore wind, for example. As the Financial Times’s Jonathan Ford observed: “According to the … National Grid, the total cost … of getting to net-zero is of the order of a thumping £160bn a year over the next three decades. It is hard to imagine that this wouldn’t create some jobs along the way … But where are all these workers to come from? Most likely by diverting people from other, possibly more economically valuable pursuits.” Such as ones not subsidised by the taxpayer, or by energy users in the form of much higher bills — which is a form of impoverishment, not enrichment.

The people who will suffer most from the government’s equivalent of the USSR’s five-year plans (which had about as much economic sense) are precisely those on whom it relied for its election victory in 2019 — and whose fortunes it has pledged to restore. Last week the think tank Onward, in a report signed off by two former ministers, one Labour and one Conservative, pointed out that of the “10 million jobs” threatened by the government’s commitment to excise UK CO2 emissions by 2050, far and away the greatest concentration were in the former red wall constituencies that had put their faith in Johnson.

The report supported the net-zero plan wholeheartedly. It simply observed the result would be that “the industrial and manufacturing heartlands in the Midlands and the North are far more likely to experience economic disruption during the net-zero transition than the southeast and London … That many of these places were worst hit from the deindustrialisation of the 1980s and 1990s reinforces this problem.” I’ll say. Not so much “levelling up” but pushing back down and then stamping on its neck.

British governments’ actions to date in adding more expensive non-fossil-fuel-based energy to the bills of industrial users have not only continued our deindustrialisation but have actually caused global emissions to increase, not decrease: the manufacturing has been outsourced, above all, to China, whose use of coal is more intensive than that of any European country. As Dieter Helm, the professor of energy policy at Oxford, puts it: “The story for the past 20 years is that in Europe we have been de-industrialising, and we’ve been swapping home production for imports, so even though it looks to the contrary, [our policies] have been increasing global warming.” Marvellous. Carry on, chaps. Just remember to turn the lights out as you leave. Assuming you could still afford to have them on in the first place.

Full op-ed (£)