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Labour’s Reckless Net Zero Promise

Rupert Darwall, The Spectator

On the face of it, the Labour party conference commitment to bring forward Britain’s net zero greenhouse gas emission target to 2030 is nothing short of reckless.

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‘We need zero emissions,’ the economist Paul Johnson and member of the Committee on Climate Change tweeted. ‘Getting there by 2050 is tough and expensive but feasible and consistent with avoiding most damaging climate change. Aiming for zero emissions by 2030 is almost certainly impossible, hugely disruptive and risks undermining consensus.’ The GMB, the union representing what remains of Britain’s industrial workers, warned that it could lead to widespread job losses. The GMB is right. Accelerated decarbonisation is a formula for rapid de-industrialisation.

As politics though, it’s a masterstroke. There is plenty of wiggle room in the policy, which only commits Labour to ‘work towards a path’ to net zero. At the same time, Labour is ensnaring the Conservatives in a trap of their own making. If you like 2050 net zero, you’re going to love Labour’s 2030 a lot more.

The Conservatives dug this hole for themselves with their rank indifference to the cost and practicality of aggressive climate policies. The Committee on Climate Change had already warned the government that its target to reduce CO2 emissions by 80 per cent was going to be missed. ‘Current policy,’ it declared, ‘is insufficient for even the existing targets.’ The committee complained that ten years after the 2008 Climate Change Act, there was still no plan to decarbonise heating and no large-scale trials have begun for heat pumps or hydrogen which, so the thinking goes, will replace cheap and reliable natural gas.

Although the impact of net zero makes the consequences of any form of Brexit puny by comparison, it was only subject to a 90-minute House of Commons debate. ‘We should be honest that it is a huge industrial undertaking, and it will have significant cost,’ Dieter Helm, professor of energy and economics at Oxford, warned when the plan was announced. ‘These are enormous industrial activities, there is nothing in history that looks like this outside of wartime.’

Accuracy about costs has been in short supply from ministers. During the debate, the Labour MP Graham Stringer asked minister Chris Skidmore why the government had not provided an impact assessment for the statutory instrument that turns the net zero target into law. Replying, Skidmore told Parliament: ‘We did not have an impact assessment when we moved from 60 per cent to 80 per cent’.

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