As Theresa May takes to the G20 stage in Japan to urge her fellow leaders to follow the UK’s moral leadership on climate change, she should hope that their parting gift is, politely, to ignore her.
As impressive as the target of net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 sounds, other countries will recognise the capacity it has to destroy UK plc for generations to come. The lack of scrutiny of what would be the most expensive and socially disruptive public policy since the Second World War is truly remarkable.
The announcement and cross-party self-congratulations last week were short on any ideas about how we get there and who picks up the tab. The chancellor has estimated that the cost would be more than £1 trillion. That’s £1,000 every second for the next 30 years.
That may please our international competitors but it’s unlikely to be a domestic vote winner. Given that the UK contributes just 1 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions, it’s also unlikely to have any effect on climate change.
The problem with putting targets into law is that no amount of legislating can make magic happen. In fact, we have seen too often how setting a target distracts us from what we are trying to achieve and results only in the time-honoured massaging of statistics.
Recently the Department for Business published the impressive fact that in 2018 “total UK greenhouse gas emissions were 43.5 per cent lower than in 1990”. This sounds remarkably like we are on track (or very nearly) to meet the 100 per cent target.
A few days later, the Department for Environment published a less selective statistic which included the UK’s consumption emissions. These include, for example, the carbon emitted in the steel we now import from China after Redcar was closed (at a cost of more than 2,000 jobs) and our doubled coal imports from Russia, with a fivefold higher carbon footprint compared with coal mined in the UK. Added together, our actual carbon reductions since 1997 are 3.4 per cent.
So our carbon emissions over the past 20 years have dropped by less than 5 per cent — and we think we can reduce them by 100 per cent in the next 30 years?