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Sunak’s Net Zero speech: the road to rationality

Andrew Montford

My immediate reaction to Rishi Sunak’s Net Zero speech yesterday was to be somewhat underwhelmed. However, on reflection I think it may be extremely important. Not because of what it said about specific policies, but because of the change of tone and emphasis, and because of what the Prime Minister said about the behaviours of previous governments.

Consent not imposition

The natural authoritarianism of the environmental movement has been visible in the ranks of Conservative cabinets for many years. Net Zero policies have been, almost universally, coercive to one degree or another. Ban this, tax that, regulate the other. You will have a heat pump and you will have an EV (or you will take the bus). So Mr Sunak’s “new approach” was, he said, to eschew such unpleasantness. Having expounded on the sacrifices being demanded of public, he observed, quite correctly, that there was a risk that public consent would be lost, ending in a widespread rejection of the net zero goal.

Instead, he said, he was going to allowing people freedom to choose. “Consent, not imposition” he said. This all sounded great, until you saw the specific policy measures he was proposing, with the imposition of heat pump and petrol car bans only being put back five years, rather than being done away with entirely. It was as St Sunak had prayed “Lord make my policies liberal, but only for a bit”.

Honesty not obfuscation

Another significant development in the speech was Mr Sunak’s confession that successive governments had not been honest with the public about the costs of the Net Zero project. He also spoke of a lack of debate and scrutiny. All this would change too, he said. “Honesty, not obfuscation” was how he put it.

The immediate change that came out of this part of the speech – a demand that Parliament should  consider plans to meet the carbon budget at the same time as approving the budget itself – seem unobjectionable, and indeed entirely sensible. However, he then rather blotted his copybook by claiming the cost of offshore wind has fallen “by 70% more than we projected in 2016”. As GWPF readers know, the cost of offshore wind is very high and has barely fallen at all. Are we going to see an honest appraisal of the numbers, or are we going to continue to rely on Whitehall – at best shonky and at worse entirely shameless? We will have to wait and see.

Little meat

Apart from that, there was little by way of new policy, apart from ruling out a whole series of wheezes dreamt up by green extremists: taxes on meat and flying and so on.

The general theme then, was one of trying to deliver Net Zero in a better way. That said, there were plenty of suggestions of “business as usual”: a huge increase in grants for heat pumps (almost the definition of dishonest obfuscation), and continuing to cover the country in windfarms and electricity pylons.

Likely outcome

So was Sunak’s Net Zero speech all just empty rhetoric? In fact I don’t think so. We have had two decades of hysteria-driven policy; the Climate Change Act is a case in point, requiring decarbonisation without regard to the costs. Indeed, the bill to be paid is only ever mentioned in throwaway terms – “It will be cheap” – and nothing more. Sunak’s admissions – that the public has been misled about the costs, and that the current policy trajectory is likely to end in a complete loss of public support – represent a major change in tone.

It may therefore be that, behind the scenes, the Government has finally realised that Net Zero is unachievable. It is more than likely that disastrous polling, and the failure of the recent renewables auction, have forced a (very belated) confrontation with the facts. The speech could well be the first step on the road back to rational policymaking.

We can hope so, but there is a long road to travel first. The Conservative Party remains divided, and there is every prospect that Labour will form the next government. That almost certainly means a retrenchment of environmental extremism, and hardship on a scale not yet dreamt of. But at least, if the truth has dawned amongst the Tory heirarchy, we might get a debate on the facts, and the facts are not in favour of Net Zero.