Opinion: Sunak is finally giving us the net zero debate we need

This rush to unreachable net zero targets using arbitrary timelines is an act of grand economic self-harm. This is why Rishi Sunak is right to hit the brakes and open a national debate on these issues.
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Our emissions are miniscule compared to countries like China and the United States, yet we would sacrifice our very living standards and enterprise in a breakneck sprint to carbon neutrality.

The UK is the 6th largest economy on the planet yet produces less than 1% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Since 1990 those emissions have reduced by more than half. I believe the future of civilisation depends on moving beyond a reliance on fossil fuel. These sources of historically cheap, plentiful energy will come to an end sooner rather than later. But there are problems.

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In the dying days of Theresa May’s premiership, desperate to secure a legacy, she hurried through one of the most profound changes in Government policy with only 17 minutes of debate and critically no vote, a legally binding target of net zero by 2050. We are one of the few countries in the world with a legally binding net zero target. This matters because, any major infrastructure investments like new runways, hospitals, railway lines or factories could be tied up in legal challenges in the courts by eco loon organisations like Just Stop Oil and Extinction Rebellion making UK Plc pretty much un-investable.Then in 2020, Boris Johnson banned the manufacture of petrol and diesel cars by 2030 and betting the house on a singular technology, electric vehicles. Behind his plume and bluster, there was little detail on the costs and impacts on this policy change apart from some general well-worn mantras of saving the planet and Britain, ‘leading the way’.

Extinction rebellion protestor in LondonExtinction rebellion protestor in London
Extinction rebellion protestor in London

It offered no chance for a proper national discussion, no proper assessments of costs, no opportunity to bring the population with us. Even John Kerry, the US climate envoy has acknowledged, half the technology which will be required to achieve net zero is yet to be invented.Banning new petrol and diesel cars in 2030 is not practical when most cannot yet afford the switch to electric and the charging infrastructure just way too behind to handle electric vehicles in volume.

But the most important issue is the capacity to supply. Britain’s overall generation capacity is static or falling. It will take a long time to increase. New nuclear power stations take decades to come online and around four fifths of current energy consumed in Britain is still in the form of gas and liquid fuels.

For any transition to succeed, people must be persuaded, not coerced. Some zealots demand we charge on regardless, issuing crash orders to hit arbitrary near-term goals. But bulldozing national lifestyle changes breeds resentment.I think the Prime Minister grasps this essential truth. Politics and public policy are essentially products of trade-offs with other competing policy priorities.

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Climate change policies do not escape this gravitational pull, no matter what the urgency or sentiment. Open and free democracies thrive on open and honest debate. There can never be any shortcuts, no matter how well meaning.

Climate protestors in LondonClimate protestors in London
Climate protestors in London

We are already a world leader on emissions cuts and are reducing carbon faster than nations like Germany and France, but China’s greenhouse gas emissions dwarf that of Britain. Since 1990 its emissions have increased by 500%. Without dealing with China and the US it will all be for nothing.

Destroying our economy, making us poorer and adversarial states like China stronger through environmental unilateral disarmament is not the way to go.