On Tuesday, I attended a private lunch given by the Global Warming Policy Foundation, the climate-sceptic think tank on whose board I sat until quite recently. Jacob Rees-Mogg was the main speaker. I am revealing no secrets by reporting more optimism in the room than I had ever previously seen in that company.
Since the Uxbridge by-election, which the Tories held by campaigning on popular resentment of Ulez, politics have changed. Ulez is, in fact, a pollution tax, not a climate-change measure, but the unexpected Tory victory in Boris Johnson’s old seat crystallised a feeling.
Plans to force the replacement of domestic oil boilers with heat pumps after 2026 and of petrol or diesel cars with electric vehicles (EVs) after 2030 annoyed millions. The gulf between airy, excited talk of saving the planet – which, to politicians, is free – and the hard here-and-now, day-to-day cost, particularly to poorer people, of the remedies allegedly needed, gaped wide. This public annoyance was predictable and – by most of us associated with the GWPF – had been long predicted. Now it had arrived, we rejoiced.
Several at the lunch rightly pointed out how appallingly cavalier successive Conservative prime ministers have been on this subject, but the prevailing mood was that Rishi Sunak had some understanding of the problem and was well placed to change direction in time for the election. Would he dare?
That very evening, we had our answer. The BBC revealed what he was about to do. Perhaps it hoped, by its leak, to unleash a tide of rage which would sweep his wicked plan away.
This has not happened. Adroitly, firmly and showing mastery of the detail, the Prime Minister saw off Nick Robinson’s attack on the Today programme on Thursday morning.
There is some resistance, of course. Throwing the political neutrality expected of a charity to the wind, the National Trust accused the Government of “undermining everything from food security to our health and well-being”. But I wonder how many green-minded Conservative MPs who are standing again will risk their seats by condemning measures that will allay most people’s fears about the expense of motoring and heating at least for the whole of the next Parliament. Such postponements will seem sensible to most potential Tory voters.
Mr Sunak is scarcely turning radically against the climate consensus of policy elites. He explicitly refuses to blaspheme against the angry god of net zero: he merely suggests less painful ways of propitiating it.
A rather bedraggled gathering of Gaia worshippers at the Political Purpose Awards – Caroline Lucas, Zac Goldsmith, Sadiq Khan – protested. Chris Packham exhorted that audience to punish the Government at the ballot box. But the Labour Party, which must think more carefully about the ballot box than does Mr Packham, is notably circumspect. It will keep the ban on new petrol and diesel cars by 2030, but otherwise avoids commitments.
Even the “Blob” has hesitated. Yesterday morning, the BBC thought it could use a tweet issued by Tony Juniper, the head of Natural England, as soon as Mr Sunak’s changes had been rumoured, in order to stir up resistance to the Government. But Mr Juniper, for whatever reason, was not playing. Appearing on Today, he did not repeat his Twitter talk of “the very future of our civilisation” being at stake. He cautiously said that motoring and heating issues were not his affair: his job was questions of species diversity and suchlike.
Probably Mr Sunak’s net zero changes will not be enough to keep him and his party in Downing Street after the next general election, but they will help. Critics who turn them into an election issue will fall into the trap he is setting. He is the conscientious one concerned about strains on voters, he implies; they are the wild-eyed ideologues who want to glue themselves to roads.
Yet if I were a net zero believer, I would be highly alarmed that Mr Sunak’s changes will ramify much wider than he claims. Even if he sincerely accepts the 2050 destination and is simply adjusting the means of getting there, he is in fact breaking the all-party consensus that has already done us so much harm.
For the first time, a party leader is raising seriously the question of cost. This should be asked of literally all political projects but, on this subject, it has been consistently suppressed. Green zealots, aware of cost horrors, have structured the five-year carbon budgets in order to protect them from democratic scrutiny. It was important that Mr Sunak said the public have been “misled” about cost. Who misled them? The list is long, but it includes every prime minister this century, Tory and Labour.
Once cost is at issue, net zero is, barring a technological miracle, bound to lose. The “behaviour change” required by the Climate Change Committee to achieve emissions reduction is, in its prescription, a bigger element than is “green energy”. People must be charged more for living as they currently choose to do and/or be banned from doing so.
Mr Sunak is now highlighting this problem. Green energy is unlikely to make nearly enough of a difference. No bids were made in the Government’s latest auction of offshore wind rights: without government subsidy, the business won’t pay.
Once this is publicly understood, both financially and politically, the illusion becomes ever harder to sustain. It is a bit like the “golden era” of our relations with China. For years, this withstood protests about persecution of Tibet and the Uyghurs and repression in Hong Kong, but eventually, when China made the world ill through Covid and insecure by its spying via Huawei and many other means, the golden era came to an end. Trust collapsed.
The equivalent is now happening with net zero. It is visible in most major Western countries. Look at America’s divisions. Look at Germany’s energy-driven slide into recession and the consequent rise of the AfD. Look at the Netherlands.
Look, in particular, at the European Union’s decision in March not, unlike us, to ban the internal combustion engine (ICE), but instead to allow it to continue, after 2035, so long as it uses only “sustainable” fuels. This decision undermines the presumption upon which the rush to EVs was made. And when, as is probable, sustainable fuels cannot justify their cost, the ICE, one of the most brilliant of all prosperity-producing inventions, will be there, ready to continue with petrol or diesel.
As the politics and economics of climate change alter, so will business. At Westminster Tube station this week, I spotted BP’s new advertisement designed to form the opinions of passing parliamentarians. It speaks of “And, not or”. The emphasis is on renewables working with fossil fuels, instead of the company’s previous rush to ditch the latter, promoted by their outgoing chief executive.
Bets are being hedged. How many of the $130 trillion assets under management promised by the Glasgow Financial Alliance for Net Zero (led by Mark Carney) will now be there when anyone needs them?
Finally, there is the global scene. It cannot be said too often that hitting net zero depends on China, Russia and India, who produce almost half the world’s carbon emissions. They are not even pretending to hit the 2050 target. It has been said slightly less often that the war in Ukraine makes their non-cooperation certain. To them, net zero is a decadent Western vanity on which they are capitalising.
Rishi Sunak is not the brave, lonely boy who cries out that the emperor has no clothes. He is more like a clear-eyed courtier edging away from the emperor’s person before others perceive the nakedness which he has already noticed.