Where is the climate plan B?

4 November 2021

1:36 AM

4 November 2021

1:36 AM

The COP26 summit is unlikely to be an outright flop. There has been no shortage of drama, with speakersseeming to compete with each other to seewho could use the most histrionic language.Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury,went so far as to compare the attending leaders to Nazi appeasers. He later apologised.

Some progress, albeit small, is beingmade. A hundred countries have been persuaded, some on the promise of sweetenersworth £14 billion, to sign a pledge to enddeforestation by 2030. Brazil, the mostimportant of all, is among them. India hasagreed, for the first time, to set itself a datefor achieving net-zero greenhouse gasemissions — although its target, 2070, istwo decades beyond what the UnitedNations would have liked. Most leaders atGlasgow will be dead by then.

One thing is unlikely to have changed bythe end of the two-week conference. For allthe pledges made and aspirations expressedby countries around the world, Britain willremain one of a tiny handful of countries tohave turned its carbon-reduction pledgesinto law. Almost all the others will do as theyhave previously done and allow themselvessome wriggle room. Pointedly, China’s short-term carbon-reduction targets are expressed‘per unit of GDP’ — emphasising that it hasno intention of sacrificing economic growthon the altar of tackling climate change.

This leaves Britain with a very seriousproblem: what to do if some of the technology which will be required to reach net zerodisappoints? It is very noble to want to setan example to the rest of the world by legally committing yourself to eliminating carbon emissions. It will not look so clever in, say, 15 years’ time if we are still struggling tostore copious quantities of energy generated on sunny and windy days for sunless andbecalmed days when our wind farms andsolar farms are generating next to nothing.

The Prime Minister insists there is nothing ‘hair-shirt’ about his decarbonisationplans, yet for this to be true he would needtechnology that has not yet been inventedand no one really expects to be any timesoon. Technology does often surprise onthe upside — nobody could have predictedthe scale of the computing revolution we have seen in recent years. It can also disappoint. Half a century ago, nuclear fusion wasseen by many as the answer to all our energy needs, providing almost limitless quantities of energy at next to no cost. Yet hadwe wagered our future on its success at thatpoint, closing down all alternative sources ofpower, we would now be living in the dark.

In 2019, parliament waved through thenet-zero target without even a Commonsvote. MPs relied at that point on an estimate by the Committee on Climate Changethat achieving net zero would cost in theorder of £1 trillion by 2050. Two years on,the Treasury says it cannot put a figure onthe costs — and no wonder, when much ofthe technology which will be required eitherdoesn’t exist or has yet to be scaled up. Allwe can be sure about is that the policies sofar announced, such as banning new gasboilers by 2035, will cost households many thousands of pounds — both in buying alternative heat pumps and in insulating homesto make them effective.

It is highly improbable that other countries will choose to make their people poorer,or colder, in order to meet arbitrary carbonreduction targets. Even Germany — seen bymany as one of the more enlightened countries in tackling climate change — has signalled its intent by responding to the spikein global gas prices by upping coal-burning.Like Britain, it had been phasing out coal,but it will not do that at the price of leavingthe country short of affordable power.

What our own government needs — butthere is scant sign it has yet — is a Plan Bin the event of decarbonisation technologyfailing to advance in the way that is hoped.Specifically, is Britain prepared to relax the2050 deadline if it becomes clear that toproceed means undermining our remaining heavy industry and causing severe economic hardship? So far, the government hasnot attempted to answer this question. Fornow, its main agenda seems to be to up therhetoric of doom, so as to argue that there issimply no alternative to achieving net zeroby 2050 — that to fail to do so would be tolay waste to the Earth and the economy likewise. This is hyperbole, deployed to concealthe lack of a clear plan.

Glasgow was supposed to mark themoment when the rest of the world shiftedtowards sharing Britain’s sense of urgency onclimate change. Yet for all the progress whichhas been made this week, there is little signthat other countries are prepared to go along.People want to know: how can net zero bereached without trapping millions of peoplein poverty? There is still no answer.

This is the leading article from this week’s Spectator, out tomorrow.

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