A new wave of skepticism is emerging in Britain: not sceptical of man-made climate change but sceptical of the cost of Net Zero – and suspicious of who will bear the heaviest burden.
Being a climate champion looks great when Boris Johnson is urging action at the U.N. Security Council or schooling the G7 on emissions.
But when it comes to confronting the critics within his own party and his own voters, the prime minister is hoping discretion is the better part of valor.
In his effort to live up to the hype of hosting the COP26 U.N. climate summit in November, Johnson has set world-leading emissions goals, but achieving them means a difficult conversation with the public and his own party: one experts and officials worry Johnson is avoiding.
“My fear is we’re going to end up with the same sort of problem we had with the EU. It’s the policy-making elite who have all agreed with one another that this is what we should be doing and haven’t carried the public with them by clearly explaining what it’s going to mean in people’s lives,” said Steve Baker, Conservative MP and perennial thorn in the government’s side.
On the face of it, Johnson is well-suited to the tree-hugging life. He is embedded in the “turquoise” brand of Conservatism (that is: green mixed with Tory blue) through his father Stanley, a long-time conservation campaigner; his wife Carrie, who helped the party find its feet on animal welfare and anti-pollution initiatives; and his point-man on the environmental brief, minister Zac Goldsmith.
It should likewise come as no surprise that the toy bus-whittling, bike-riding former mayor of London, who never met a big infrastructure project he didn’t want to break ground on, is attracted to a shiny vision of new offshore windfarms, hydrogen technologies and electric vehicles. His support for environmental initiatives has in the past been comfortably grounded in conservatism, and a belief that business will find better solutions than state intervention.
Lately, he has shown more enthusiasm for top-down initiatives. Johnson has bolstered the headline goal of net zero by 2050 in legislating for a 78 percent reduction in carbon emissions by 2035 and has started a conversation about ending financial support for coal. It adds up to the impression he’s alert to the need for big wins — for the planet and for U.K. diplomacy — at COP26.
“What it means” encompasses a huge range of things: moving from diesel to electric cars; cutting out car travel altogether where possible; using heat pumps rather than gas boilers; and even changing diets. Perhaps the biggest single change affecting people’s lives will be the transformation of the jobs landscape, as the country moves away from carbon-intensive industries.
Despite the scale of the coming transformation, government progress is patchy. Ministers have put in place various measures to encourage the use of electric cars, even if a recent public accounts committee report warned it would have to go faster.
Phasing out gas boilers, on the other hand, remains too hot to handle.
The government’s decarbonizing transport plan and its heat strategy are both currently missing in action, as is the Treasury’s final net-zero review.
That vacuum is allowing a new wave of skepticism to creep in: not skeptical (in general) of manmade climate change but skeptical of the scientifically-recommended pathway to safety — net-zero by 2050 — and suspicious of who will bear the heaviest burden.
At the vanguard is Baker, the Conservative MP who has hounded the government over Brexit, coronavirus restrictions, and now what he calls in his latest Twitter hashtag “the cost of net-zero.” His interventions on the subject have steadily increased over the last month, reaching fever pitch when Bloomberg reported that people could face fines over failure to replace gas boilers, which he decried as “Soviet-style” planning.
“Unlike Brexit and the EU, it’s not going to be a minority pursuit when this thing really hits. It will affect every homeowner, every tenant, because tenants will see that rents go up to cover the costs,” he said.
The temptation for Baker’s opponents may be to dismiss him as representative of a small minority — after all, on coronavirus, his protests against lockdown measures never really captured the public mood.
White van man worries
But he is not alone. There is a wider section of the Conservative party which is concerned about how the shift required to reduce carbon emissions will impact their constituents, particularly the lower paid. If Johnson ignores these advocates for working-class Conservatism, who have successfully placed their finger on the pulse in the past over freezing fuel duty and funding free school meals, he may come to regret it.