This morning’s papers feature the latest developments in the Prime Minister’s green reset. Today, the headline is his pledge to reduce British carbon emissions by 68 per cent by 2030.
As the FT notes, hitting this target will “will require restructuring a significant portion of the economy”. Making half of all cars on the road electric by the end of the decade, as the Daily Telegraph reports, would be just the start.
So far, there hasn’t been much pushback against this “ambitious new target”. This is perhaps not surprising, since we are still at the stage where the Government is doling out cash. Visions of the ‘green industrial revolution‘ can dance safely before MPs’ eyes.
But there are reasons to expect that this won’t last. Not because of any widespread disagreement on the underlying science, but because it will require a lot of long-term infrastructure development of the sort that the United Kingdom has become increasingly bad at.
The goal for widespread electric cars, to pick just one example, would mean installing a comprehensive national network of charging points on a par with the existing one for petrol stations. This is probably doable, but would you bet on a nation that just ‘rolled back’ its plans to deliver a national high-speed broadband network?
According to the National Audit Office’s new report on Net Zero, delivering it in the time now set down in law “will require wide-ranging changes across society and the economy at a pace which leaves little room for delay”. Yet as Rachel Wolf noted in a recent piece for this site:
“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 Eighteenth 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.”
If the Government (or the next one) doesn’t want to end up having to choose between brute-forcing its way towards Net Zero through policies such as pricing the low-paid out of international travel or eating meat (goodbye levelling up), it needs to lay the foundations for a smooth and efficient transition to greener systems which are just as effective as the current ones – and to do so at the very moment it has just used up much of its fiscal wriggle-room fighting Covid-19.
Others have pointed out how badly the pandemic has exposed the decay of British state capacity. But it didn’t take a global crisis to know that British politicians are deeply averse to making important long-term infrastructure decisions when there is any pain involved. We haven’t found the will to expand Heathrow, or Felixtowe, and are only limping towards an incomplete high-speed railway. Nobody expects the Prime Minister’s mooted Irish Sea Bridge to get built, and MPs continue to mutiny against any attempt to solve the housing crisis by actually building enough houses.
Would you bet on such a political culture seeing through (let alone successfully) an attempt to deliver “wide-ranging changes across society and the economy at a pace which leaves little room for delay”?