Emission Critical: The Politics Of Net Zero

October 11, 2019 | by Field Team

In the latest of Field's policy series, Field's energy expert Rob Jeffery outlines the politics of net zero and the challenges ahead

In May we reported on the Government’s impending decision to legislate for a net zero emissions target. At the time we said that setting the target would be the easy bit – getting buy-in for the policy changes required to deliver it would be the tricky part.

Since then, despite the change in Government and the never-ending Brexit psychodrama, politicians of all colours have attempted to start turning the tanker. And love them or loathe them, the Extinction Rebellion protesters have ensured that reporting on climate change is now consistently at or near the top of the news agenda.

It’s the one thing politicians seem to agree on – the need to do something. But they differ on when and how we should get there. And this polarising debate, over what will require the biggest behavioural shift in a generation, risks alienating those that need to be won over if we are to really wean ourselves off carbon.

Since the Government committed to net zero, a game of political one-upmanship has ensued.

The Lib Dems have committed to go further than the 2050 target and achieve net zero by 2045. Going further still Labour approved a motion to achieve net zero by 2030 with their radical Green New Deal. And if that wasn’t ambitious enough, Extinction Rebellion want to hit zero by 2025. Not to be outdone, Fatboy Slim is now mixing Greta Thunberg vocals into his sets.

Crucially though, the Committee on Climate Change has said that net zero would be feasible and cost-effective by 2050. Feasible because the technologies that will deliver it are now understood, and cost effective because falls in technology costs now permit net zero within the very same cost envelope that would have got us to an 80% emissions cut by 2050 (which was committed to in the 2008 Climate Change Act).

This will require more green power, a switch from the almost 40 million petrol and diesel cars to zero emissions vehicles, cutting down on red meat, replacing gas boilers with heat pumps in all 25 million homes, and more walking and cycling.

Shortening that time frame, and going against the advice of the Committee on Climate Change, will ramp up costs and be even harder to sell to the public than it already is.

It cannot be overstated the amount of change that is needed to reach even the 2050 target, all of which will require unprecedented coordination from Whitehall.

How this is communicated will be critical. People need to understand why and what changes are needed and see a real benefit in making low-carbon choices. You only have to look at the smart meter roll out to see how hard it will be to convince the public that this is worth doing.

There is a danger therefore that if we move too quickly, politicians and protesters will alienate the majority of the population, burdening them with the expectation of too many costs and too much state intervention.

And the unrealistic targets and alarmist language of Extinction Rebellion could mean that people begin to associate any form of climate action, regardless of when the net zero deadline is, as unpalatable and unjustifiable.

But it’s a fine line between pushing too hard and being too complacent. Beyond Brexit, balancing on this tightrope will be politicians’ biggest public policy and communications challenge over the next few decades. Getting to the other side is essential, but how it’s sold to the public, how long it takes, and at what cost remains to be seen.

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