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Fingers pointed over failure of Net Zero

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Andrew Montford
A prominent former member of the Climate Change Committee blames MPs for failure of Net Zero plans.

Back in 2020, the economist Paul Johnson, a member of the Climate Change Committee (CCC), said that the overall cost of getting to Net Zero should be ‘more than manageable’, and indeed, with a fair technological wind, might be ‘remarkably low’.[1] Tens of billions of pounds a year would be all that was required, he claimed, in line with the CCC’s 2019 Net Zero report, which suggested a figure of £50 billion per year, and thus perhaps £1.5 trillion in total.

This easy transformation was going to be enabled by technology, explained Mr Johnson:

It looks likely that electric cars will turn out to be cheaper overall to buy and run than petrol cars. The cost of wind and solar power has been plummeting at an extraordinary rate.

Wind forward just three years, and Mr Johnson’s optimism about the bill to be paid looks slightly ridiculous. His belief in plummeting renewables costs – credulous even at the time – has been refuted every year, before and since, by the information in windfarm financial accounts,[2] and now by the recent failure of the renewables auction too. EVs remains thousands of pounds more expensive than petrol and diesel equivalents,[3] and they are dearer to insure to boot.[4] Very few seem to want them, and even fewer seem interested in heat pumps either, perhaps unsurprisingly since they seem to deliver only higher energy bills.[5]

Perhaps sensing a change in the wind, Mr Johnson seems recently to have changed his tune. In an article in the Times on Monday,[6] he declared that we have ‘targets without strategies and without coherent policies’ for reaching Net Zero. And indeed, there is a ‘fog of uncertainty over how we are actually expecting to decarbonise household heating, further massively increase zero-carbon electricity production and distribution, revolutionise agriculture and all the rest’.

Net Zero not so ‘manageable’ after all, then?

And now it seems that, rather than being ‘rather low’, Net Zero is actually going to be ‘costly’. Indeed, we are warned, the investment required is ‘not in the billions, but in the trillions’ – ‘vast amounts of money’, he warns. This dramatic upgrading of the costs does rather suggest that his earlier estimate, just three years old, was wrong by several trillion pounds. Still, as Niels Bohr once observed, ‘prediction is hard, particularly of the future’.

Amusingly, Mr Johnson seems to want to blame MPs for the failure of the Net Zero plan. There was, he says, ‘an easy consensus’ and a ‘lack of serious parliamentary scrutiny’. You have to admit that the chutzpah is impressive. Mr Johnson was, after all, a member of the Climate Change Committee when it produced the Net Zero plan. He told us it was ‘manageable’, remember? So while few would argue that Parliamentary oversight of the Net Zero process has been non-existent – shamefully so – for members of the CCC to try to shift the blame in this way does seem a bit like pointing the finger at the teacher for your poor homework.

Despite all these problems, Mr Johnson’s enthusiasm for the Net Zero project seems undiminished. It is still vital that we go ahead, he says, because we face ‘an existential threat’, rather contradicting a prominent former CCC colleague, Professor Jim Skea, who is now the chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and who seems much less apocalyptic about it all.[7]

So although ‘deliverable plans’ are ‘thin on the ground’, he seems to think that if we just gird our loins, and come up with a new one, all will be well. All it will take is…

…the kind of careful, long-term, honest planning, decision-making and delivery that has not exactly been the hallmark of British governments

It’s enough to make your blood run cold.


[1] https://www.thetimes.co.uk/edition/business/the-law-of-averages-cannot-apply-to-our-pursuit-of-a-net-zero-future-kr0rjmj7v

[2] https://www.thegwpf.org/publications/cheap-offshore-wind-power-claims-are-false-data-reveals/

[3] https://www.thisismoney.co.uk/money/electriccars/article-11995825/The-electric-cars-expensive-insure.html

[4] https://www.rac.co.uk/drive/electric-cars/running/are-electric-cars-cheaper-to-insure/

[5] https://www.thegwpf.org/publications/new-paper-reveals-governments-heat-pump-plan-as-uneconomic/

[6] https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/bc060266-5b0c-11ee-a0fe-c89e2badddf3?shareToken=4532d9af6549a060ec02d03d161da917&s=08

[7] https://www.dw.com/en/climate-change-do-not-overstate-15-degrees-threat/a-66386523

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