Rachel Wolf is a partner in Public First. She had co-charge of the 2019 Conservative Manifesto. She was an education and innovation adviser at Number 10 during David Cameron’s premiership and was founding director of the New Schools Network.
Worrying about the state of the environment in the middle of a pandemic might feel like rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic. Will the public question the Government’s sense of priorities if ministers start talking about how to protect the environment in the midst of a health crisis and a long potential downturn?
Actually, no. This week marked the first substantial policy intervention of the Prime Minister in months – a long awaited change to the education system that will make it easier for adults to retrain, and support more technical education. The rationale was clear: now, more than ever, we need to make sure people are trained for their next job.
The same argument can be made for the environment. The hard lockdown and the gentle recovery reminded people of two things: that everyday life is better for everyone when roads are quieter and the air is cleaner; and that economic growth is always precarious. That means we need to focus on industries and technologies of the future that will help maintain jobs and living standards.
In short, precisely because of their Covid-19 experience, the public have seen the importance of a practical, commercially-minded environmentalism. That is fortunate, because there are some major choices to be made, and we are unprepared for them.
The target of Net Zero emissions by 2050 was passed into legislation with little public notice – most people still haven’t heard the term. There was also remarkably little Westminster debate: all the leadership candidates in 2019 signed up to the policy, so scrutiny was absent. Then, of course, the pandemic halted the entire domestic policy agenda. For this reason, we are still waiting to understand exactly what ending a 200-year dependence on fossil fuels really entails.
In my view, carbon pricing must form a large part of the answer.
As someone on the centre-right, I have always simultaneously applauded the aims and had great fears about the execution of Net Zero.
First, I worry it might upend too much. Our economy and lives are built off copious amounts of affordable energy. It is the main reason we were able to escape the destitution of the past. A life unimaginable to even the elite in the eighteentj century is now accessible to nearly all.
Therefore, any successful programme to reduce emissions must understand that people will not go backwards. Policies must work within the grain of people’s lives – not rewire them. We cannot be against trade; or consumption; or travel. We just need ways to achieve all three without catastrophic environmental effects.
Second, I worry the plans rely on an implausible level of omniscience and competence from governments. We cannot engineer economies. We do not know exactly what innovations to support. We are likely to end up with endless unforeseen consequences and costs. We can encourage and support technology and invention; but prescribing what it should look like in 50 years time? That’s implausible.
It is for both of these reasons that I have spent much of the last six months working for an independent commission on how carbon pricing might practically, and technically, work.
To put it simply, possibly too simply, a carbon price requires those who produce, distribute, or use fossil fuels – or who produce greenhouse gas emissions in other ways – to make a payment for every tonne of greenhouse gases that enters our atmosphere.
In principle, the arguments for a carbon price are fairly obvious. It works with the grain of the market. It doesn’t make grand regulatory predictions about what will work, what we should do, or how exactly people ought to change their behaviour. It just prices in the ‘bad’ – in this case, emissions.
In practice, too, it has been effective. Electricity is the only area we have had a consistent approach to carbon pricing in the UK, and that is why electricity is the area where we have driven down emissions the most. But electricity represents only a minority of our carbon emissions, and we now need a clear approach to the rest of the economy.
Carbon pricing also provides two things that we now – badly – need.
First, revenue. In some countries, carbon pricing is completely revenue neutral, and the money is distributed back to households. This deals with the challenges of the environment without leaving people worse off. But in others, it is used to support general government objectives – like funding the health service (or reducing the deficit).
If the Government needs to raise money, doing it in a way that will win public support and support environmental aims, without burdening businesses excessively, is a sensible way to do it. The other way to use revenue is to support transitions to cleaner energy alternatives and new green jobs – incentivising people away from carbon emissions, while supporting innovation.
Second, it provides certainty. A lot of the money for net zero should come from private investment. A fixed, clear price gives them the confidence to spend.
We already have some carbon pricing in the UK tax system. Unfortunately, it lacks transparency, is far too complicated and is piled sequentially on top of electricity bills. It has the bizarre consequence of actively encouraging people to move from electricity to gas – the opposite of what we want if we care about carbon emissions. Neither consumers nor suppliers have a clear idea of who is paying what and why.
Carbon pricing is not a silver bullet. I have oversimplified the changes necessary to reach Net Zero, and in our commission report we outlined a list of complementary policies required for different sectors to reach it. They recognise that the cost of reaching Net Zero is likely to be different for electricity, heating, industry and agriculture, and that the technologies are less mature for some sectors than others. Nor can it be too high: the economy is fragile, and business must be able to recover and grow. But the basic human principles remain – if there is a price, people will change their behaviour, and human ingenuity will always outstrip governments’.
We have been submerged in environmental rhetoric for years. Now the UK, alongside other countries with similar commitments, is having to make some real choices. Often, understandable fear of a public backlash has held them back – our research suggests there’s a credible way of gaining public consent and achieving our environmental aims: by having a clear price, credible alternatives for people to switch to, and cushioning so that no one is too badly affected. That is both deliverable and desirable, and it should form the core of the UK’s net zero roadmap.