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Rupert Darwall: After Glasgow we need a Net Zero referendum

The Glasgow climate conference represents a strategic defeat for the West and for Britain in particular.

Boris Johnson threw the kitchen sink at it. The Royal Family hosted receptions for multi-billionaires. The Foreign Office sent climate envoys around the world. Glasgow would show the world that what France could do six years ago at the Paris climate conference, Britain could do better. But whereas the French knew what they were doing in Paris, the British were all at sea in Glasgow. The result was a display of the rank amateurishness of the British state. Unsurprisingly, it ended in tears. Literally.


If Boris Johnson and his ministers had done their homework, they would have known they were on a hiding to nothing. The 1997 Kyoto Protocol failed because it excluded the developing world from cutting their emissions. The West attempted to remedy this at the Copenhagen climate conference in 2009 with a climate treaty that would bring the major emerging economies under a multilateral regime of emissions targets and timetables. The attempt was sunk by China, India, South Africa and Brazil acting in concert.

The West needed some sort of climate agreement to justify their domestic climate policies. Global warming is global. The West accounts for a declining share of global emissions. “This was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal,” Barack Obama had boasted in 2008. Obama and the West were desperate for a climate agreement, even a fig leaf of one. The Paris agreement is the climate equivalent of Mikhail Gorbachev’s Sinatra Doctrine under which the captive nations of eastern Europe could do it their way. It signalled that the Soviet Union had lost the Cold War. In similar fashion, the Paris agreement signalled that the West had accepted its defeat and had given up its attempt to create a multilateral regime of emissions cuts. Instead, the Paris agreement is based on nationally determined contributions. Each party to the agreement would do it its way.


After Copenhagen, there was intense lobbying by small island states to tighten the temperature target from 2 degrees above industrial levels to 1.5 degrees. Their islands, they claimed, were in danger of sinking beneath the waves. The West swallowed the sinking island sob story, which is how 1.5 degrees came to be included in the Paris agreement as a subsidiary ambition to the 2 degree target. But it was dodgy science. As the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) said later:  “Observations, models and other evidence indicate that unconstrained Pacific atolls have kept pace with [sea level rise], with little reduction in size or net gain in land”.


Because Paris included 1.5 in its text, the IPCC brought forward the indicative timetable for net zero from the second half of the current century to 2050. In the dying days of her premiership, Theresa May decided to make net zero her legacy. In 2019, it was incorporated as a binding target under the 2008 Climate Change Act after a ninety-minute debate in the House of Commons, even though MPs had no idea how much it would cost or whether it was remotely feasible. But one thing is clear. However much net zero costs Britain, it is pointless for Britain to decarbonise if the rest of the world doesn’t. The regulatory impact assessment accompanying the Climate Change Act signed by Ed Miliband as climate and energy secretary could not have been clearer: “The UK continuing to act while the rest of the world does not, would result in a large net cost for the UK.” The benefits of UK climate action would be distributed around the world, but the UK would bear all the costs.


The Climate Change Act was passed in the run up to the Copenhagen climate conference which was going to produce a binding climate treaty. “Showing leadership through the Climate Change Act, the UK will help to drive a global deal,” Miliband asserted, showing that climate hubris is embraced by all Britain’s political parties.

Now, for a second time, a UN climate conference has produced a dud. The mantra of Britain leading and the rest of the world following has ended in tears and in humiliation. The question mark over net zero has been answered. After Glasgow, we now know that net zero is all pain for no gain. With Britain’s political class committed to the dead end of net zero, they will not act to take Britain off this disastrous path. Roll on a net zero referendum.

The Daily Telegraph, 15 November 2021