While climate change is a real issue and must be tackled, the prime minister’s 10-commandment plan is not the way to go about it
Our fearless leader has descended from the mountain with a 10-commandment plan for a green industrial revolution. At a cost of £12 billion, he will have all Britons driving electric cars powered by North Sea wind turbines and giving up their gas boilers to heat their homes with ground-source heat pumps. He will invent zero-emission planes and ships. This vast enterprise will create 250,000 jobs. I am a loyal supporter of the prime minister, but this Ed Miliband policy makes no sense any way you look at it. Here are 10 reasons why.
First, if it’s jobs we are after then spending £48,000 per job is a lot. Cheaper, as Lord Lawson put it, to create the same employment erecting a statue of Boris in every town. Anyway, it’s backwards: it’s not jobs in the generating of energy that count but jobs that use it. Providing cheap, reliable energy enables the private sector to create jobs for free as far as the taxpayer is concerned.
Second, he misreads how innovation works, a topic on which I’ve just written a book. Innovation will create marvellous, unexpected things in the next 10 years. But if you could summon up innovations to order in any sector you want, such as electric planes and cheap ways of making hydrogen, just by spending money, then the promises of my childhood would have come true: routine space travel, personal jetpacks and flying cars. Instead, we flew in 747s for more than 50 years.
Third, he is hugely underestimating the cost. The wind industry claims that its cost is coming down. But the accounts of wind energy companies show that both capital and operating expenditures of offshore wind farms continue to rise, as Gordon Hughes of Edinburgh University and John Aldersey-Williams of Aberdeen Busines School have found. Wind firms sign contracts to deliver cheap electricity, but the penalties for walking away from those contracts, demanding higher prices from a desperate grid in the future, are minimal and their investors know it. Britain already has among the highest electricity prices for business in Europe because of the £10 billion a year that electricity-bill payers spend on subsidising the rich capitalists who own wind farms; raising them further will kill a lot more than 250,000 jobs.
Fourth, these policies will not significantly reduce the nation’s emissions, let alone the world’s. It takes a lot more emissions to make an electric car than a petrol one because of the battery. This is usually made in China. If the battery lasts for 100,000 miles – which is optimistic – and the electricity with which it is recharged is made partly with gas, then there is only a small saving in emissions over the lifetime of the car, according to Gautam Kalghatgi of Oxford University.
Fifth, the plan will make the electricity supply less reliable. Already this autumn there have been power-cut near misses and there was a bad blackout in 2019. Costly diesel generators came to our rescue, but keeping the grid stable is getting harder, and in both Australia and California, blackouts have become more common because of reliance on renewables. Smart meters that drain your electric car’s battery to help keep other people’s lights on may help. But if you think that will be popular, Boris, good luck, and wait till the lights go out or the cost of heating your home goes through the roof.