Bim Afolami is MP for Hitchin & Harpenden.
I was in the chamber of the House of Commons when Theresa May’s government legislated for a legally binding target for the UK to reach Net Zero by 2050.
It felt momentous at the time, and it was a big moment. Strangely, though, during the debate in the chamber, the remarks were uniformly positive, from all sides.
Now let me be clear: I strongly support the Net Zero target and did at that time – it is the right thing to do. But in politics when you see something as momentous as this go through without a dissenting voice, an alarm bell should ring that says: “have we thought through all the implications of this?”
There are two areas where we may be politically vulnerable in the coming years on the environment, and on reaching Net Zero by 2050 in particular.
First, the need to significantly limit, and preferably nullify, any direct economic cost on working people, or else risk a considerable political backlash. With the threat of inflation rising, the cost of living agenda is likely to return to the front and centre of British politics very soon. This will be politically resonant for the sort of middle income, Red Wall voters who have been increasingly supporting the Conservatives in recent elections.
Second, there is the twin threat from the other side of our political coalition. For many liberal-minded, Remain-leaning Tory voters in the south, our strong support for the environment is one of the key reasons for their support. If there is any hint that we are rowing back, their loyalty will be severely tested – especially if Labour and other opposition parties can effectively make the case that we are failing to reach our own carbon emission targets.
Our record on reducing UK carbon emissions whilst growing our economy is the best in the G7, and one of the best in Europe. Yet the vast majority of actions we have taken are about decarbonising power generation. Aggressively moving towards renewable energy since 2010 has been remarkably successful, but we have barely begun to tackle many of the aspects that affect people’s day to day lives – for example, the need to retrofit homes in order to make them more fuel efficient, ensuring traditional boilers are replaced, or ensuring electric vehicles are affordable to the ordinary family.
To be frank, these actions will require a lot of money, up front, from the Treasury. We cannot think it will be sufficient to cover the costs just for the lowest income voters – most voters will need environmentally sustainable options to be heavily subsided and affordable. Most middle income or even wealthier voters are not remotely prepared or willing to pay significantly more tax on fuel, or on flights, or to rip out their existing heating systems, or many other invasive things that academics and policy experts suggest will soon be required to reach Net Zero.
The Committee on Climate Change envisage phasing out oil and coal heating by 2028, gas boilers in homes by 2033 at latest, and by 2030 in public buildings. Lots of change is coming. The new upcoming Heat and Buildings Strategy and broader Net Zero strategy (both expected this summer) will be scrutinised heavily on the twin axes of both policy effectiveness and additional costs.
The cost of living used to be a major issue in our politics. It was a dominant issue during the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. The 1990s and 2000s saw benign economic circumstances until the financial crisis.
After it, something strange happened to our economic debates. We stopped talking about economic policy in relation to ordinary people – real incomes, prices of goods and taxes, and focused our political capital on getting public support for measures to reduce the deficit. Although May’s government started to home in on cost of living as a potential issue for the “JAMs” (voters “just about managing”), this issue was soon subsumed within the Brexit fog.
I believe that that the politics of cost of living is about to return, and it presents a real political danger for the Government and the Conservative Party.
Andy Haldane, the hugely respected former Chief Economist of the Bank of England, has openly talked about the “tiger” of inflation stalking the land. The economy is recovering quickly, and the immediate consequence is that too much money (from extremely cheap debt and accumulated savings built up over Covid) is chasing too few goods and services.
There are also labour shortages and supply chain difficulties in many sectors, which is constraining supply. A resurgence of inflation is the central scenario for growing numbers of businesses he says. By way of comparison, inflation in the USA is already at 4.7 per cent, up from 4.2 per cent for April, reflecting the overheating US economy. And the recovery, in both the USA or the UK, is nowhere near complete.
You can see where I’m going with this. Increased costs from Net Zero policy, combined with general inflationary pressures, looks like significant cost of living increases for ordinary people. Even with a growing economy, that will present real challenges to our well-earned reputation for economic management.
From a Net Zero perspective, then, how do we do the right thing and insulate ourselves against political attack at the same time? There should be three principles underlying our approach.
First, we need aggressively to embrace the long-term economic opportunities of getting to Net Zero by 2050, and we need to communicate that clearly so that people understand what this means for their day to day lives. Households living in energy poverty typically spend a higher proportion of their income on their energy bills. Improving the energy efficiency of dwellings by installing insulation, more efficient heating and cooling systems and more efficient building fabrics can decrease energy costs, and enable higher levels of disposable income.
Energy poverty also has a negative impact on the NHS, with more avoidable hospital admissions and use of non-primary health care services. Living in energy poverty increases the risk of acute respiratory, cardiovascular, and musculoskeletal problems, which often result in lengthy hospital admissions, particularly in winter. The Treasury is going to have to be brave and invest a lot of money up front.
Second, the cost impacts on the vast majority of voters must be minimal. If we try and force voters to retrofit their homes with new insulation, or install new low carbon boilers, at the personal cost of thousands of pounds, this will be a political disaster. Even for the voters who can afford significant expenditures, this will be seen as unfair and heavy-handed, and large numbers of them will either refuse (or be unable) to comply.
The third principle is this. We need to face down those who are starting to say that the costs of Net Zero are too much, or it is too difficult. In a world where countries are becoming more and not less committed to the need to limit global temperature rises, the UK cannot afford to hold back. The macro economic opportunities for reindustrialising huge parts of the North and Midlands – creating hundreds of thousands of jobs, whilst using the traditional strengths of the service economy in the South – is too great to ignore. We can not only be international leaders, but help the domestic economy go through a job rich transformation.
The debate how we reach Net Zero by 2050 will define our politics over the coming decades. We must ensure that we have an ambitious, world-leading approach that builds on our strengths. But we must also ensure that we don’t alienate voters along the way.