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Madeline Grant: Why it’s time to put Net Zero to a referendum

‘No one voted to be poorer”, has been the Europhiles’ long-playing refrain of recent years. This slogan, though patronising, exposes an interesting paradox.

While we have hotly debated the costs and benefits of everything from Brexit to a Corbyn government to HS2, another crucial policy area – the environment – has been virtually ignored amid facile discussions and a total absence of democratic engagement.

In the dying days of the May premiership, to little fanfare, Parliament passed a binding pledge of net zero carbon emissions by 2050. The economic cost of this could make the most apocalyptic ‘No Deal’ scenarios seem small change – yet the level of detail is astonishingly slight.

In an interview last week, Environment Secretary Michael Gove dodged questions about the cost of banning petrol, diesel and hybrid cars. Ministers use carefully chosen words to describe the public cost of Net Zero, vaguely referring to “1-2 per cent of GDP by 2050”. This is because the estimates they refer to only apply to 2050, as an FOI reveals. They ignore the years 2020-2049, conveniently omitting the expense of overhauling national infrastructure in the interim.ADVERTISING

I cannot estimate the price of dismantling every gas boiler, retrofitting some 26 million homes, building a vast network of electric car charging points, and so on. Suffice to say it will be a mind-boggling sum – and that is before negotiating the tricky politics.

Given slow progress on commercial electric flights, net zero would likely mean halting air travel for the many – with exceptions for a wealthy few, such as those attending important events like the Oscars or Davos. Though we do not share the revolutionary iconoclasm of our Gallic neighbours, the gilets jaunes protests – sparked by surging fuel prices – give a taste of the class resentment this could trigger.

Politicians equate climate demonstrations and opinion poll concern with unfettered public appetite for their environmental aims. Yet financial trade-offs rarely feature in such surveys. Would as many agree if presented with their own annual tax hikes? Activists imply net zero can be funded by nebulous clampdowns on “big business”, rather than punishing taxpayers while the likes of China emit as usual. But it will cost the earth for Britain not to save the planet, and the public ought to know.

In a democracy, politicians govern by consent, or imperil the social contract. But environmental aims can still fit public opinion. Abolishing a high profile tax like national insurance and replacing it with a carbon levy would be electorally palatable and, crucially, technology-agnostic, mitigating the risk of the government “picking losers”. We should think more globally too: converting India or China’s electricity grids from coal to nuclear, for example, would make a tremendous difference, especially if living standards and consumption levels continue to rise. A pound invested there will deliver far greater returns than one spent on solar power in cloudy Britain.

But why not put Net Zero to a referendum, in which costs, benefits and risks may be properly debated? Major changes require public consent. If we are serious about democratic renewal, the environment should too.

The Daily Telegraph, 9 February 2020