How long before the target of making Britain net-zero by 2050 has to be dropped, or at least made non legally-binding?
Politically it must have seemed an easy promise for Theresa May to make in the dying days of her premiership: to commit Britain to a legally-binding target of achieving net zero emissions by 2050, rather than the 80 per cent reduction previously stipulated in the Climate Change Act. It was the summer of 2019 and Extinction Rebellion protests had taken place with surprisingly little counter-protest. David Attenborough’s TV documentary was received warmly by the press, and polls indicated that the public appeared to supported action on climate change – according to a YouGov poll in December 2018 two thirds of the population stated they did not believe the risks of climate change were being exaggerated. Given that May knew she wasn’t going to be around personally to worry about achieving the new target, perhaps she saw it as an easy chance to secure a legacy.
But it is steadily becoming apparent just how politically costly the net zero commitment could be. When environmental issues are expressed in general terms, people tend to fall on the side of taking action; when the consequences for them personally are explained to them, it tends to be a very different matter. A government threat to ban gas boilers in existing homes by 2035, and to fine homeowners if they failed to meet the deadline, seems to have lasted less than a day. It was reported on Tuesday morning that ministers were considering including such a ban in a new heat and buildings strategy to be published next month – but by the afternoon the government appeared to have backtracked, and said there wouldn’t be any fines.
That would be just as well if the government is to have any hope of hanging on to its new heartlands in former red wall seats – and indeed elsewhere. While much of Britain’s housing stock may be old and energy inefficient, an awful lot of it is owned and lived in by voters who don’t necessarily have the means to spend £10,000 on a new heat pump and another £10,000 on insulating their homes (which is the minimum cost of insulating each of Britain’s eight million homes with solid walls). To hit them with such a bill – even with 14 years’ notice – is not going to go down well.
The bill to insulate homes and decarbonise home heating, of course, will come on top of the extra costs people face if they wish to continue to own a car after 2030 when the sale of new diesel and electric cars will be banned. It isn’t just the cars themselves which are more expensive, there is the practical cost of recharging an electric car when you do not have off-street parking next to your home. In both cases – home energy improvements and electric cars – it should not be hard to spot who will face the biggest expense and difficulty: people who live in solid-walled Victorian terraces which open straight onto the street. The trouble is that this demographic covers a vast number of voters – in northern and Midlands towns especially.
The government’s problem is that it is now legally-committed to a zero carbon policy which cannot be met without vast cost – and even then can only be met with technology which has yet to be invented. Even a well-insulated home with an electric heat pump powered by wind farms and solar panels is not really going to be zero-carbon – not when we have no economic means of producing steel, cement or bricks without emitting carbon.