Dissenters can go figure. Yes, China is still stacking up new coal plants. But it is also the world’s largest invester in renewables. Meanwhile, America was pouring record amounts into them – even under Donald Trump.
Those on the right who don’t believe in man-made climate change can protest as loudly as they like about this shift in the zeitgeist. Their own capitalist system is turning its back on them.
BP’s plan to increase its renewables twenty-fold, cut oil and gas production by 40 per cent, and not to enter new countries to explore for either is only the tip of a non-melting iceberg.
Slumps, black swans and wars could slow the pace of change. But the direction of travel is unmissable. Fossil fuels are out – at least as traditionally used – and renewables are in. The rejectionists might as well seek to shout down a hurricane.
In many ways, this is all to the good. Energy security demands decreasing our reliance on, say, Russian coal. Emissions reduction suggests not looking to our own for a replacement.
We have no quarrel with “the science”: as Roger Scruton pointed out, “the greenhouse effect has been known for over a century and a half”. But giving the shift to renewables a thumbs-up in principle is not necessarily the same as doing so in practice – that’s to say, when a plan is on the table.
The Government has a series of targets for reducing emissions. Two of the best-known are the ban on the sale of new diesel, petrol and hybrid cars, and the zero emissions 2050 target, rushed in by Theresa May as a legacy policy.
We want to look at these targets, and the pace of change which they suggest, through three lenses: those of people, politics and Parliament. First, people. Our columnist James Frayne writes on this site that he “has probably done more work on the environment than any other single issue”.
He finds a class and age divergence among support for environmental policies. They’re important to everyone, more so to younger, urban voters – and in different ways.
To many of those people, Greta Thurnberg is a hero. Lots of those older, provincial ones have never heard of her. Their concerns are concrete, not abstract: “excessive use of plastics, the destruction of areas of natural beauty and animal welfare.”
Yes, there’s an overlap. But how will they react when or if governments tax their hybrid cars, bar the coal they use for their fires, hike their electricity bills, export their jobs and ban them from eating meat?
Cambridge University is blazing a trail for that last policy – a reminder that urban, younger people are concentrated in Planet Remain, and provincial, older ones in Leave Country. Welcome to the latest version of culture wars.
Now, it’s true that voter protest so far has been muted. Which brings us to our second p: politics. Britain’s democracy is geared up to a five-year election cycle.
It is built into the very stuff of Parliament, therefore, for MPs to fixate on the date of the next election (due in this case to be May 2 2024) – and often to look no further.
To make a complex story simple, green technologies mean subsidies, subsidies mean jobs, and MPs want those jobs for their constituents. Who can blame them?
Hence the rush of articles on this site, more numerous by our count than on any other subject, from backbench MPs making the case for green technologies that will mean “green jobs” in their seats.
What about the bills? They will mostly arrive on the doortsteps of taxpayers, consumers and business in the medium-run, if not the long-run. And “in the long run we are all dead,” as Keynes put it.
So, third, to Parliament. We quoted Scruton earlier on the known factor of the greenhouse effect. But withheld until now the context of the quote.
The greenhouse effect “implies that, other things being equal, the accelerating production of carbon dioxide will cause the earth to warm”, he added, before briefly citing one of those other things: “fluctuations in solar energy”, he added.
There is more detail in his book Green Philosophy, but one would have thought that this position (the greenhouse effect is a cause of global warming – even the main cause, but not the only cause), would be shared by some on the Conservative benches.
Even if not, one would certainly have imagined that, by now, a band of Tory MPs would be pointing out that the bills for this green programme will come in sooner or later – at which point, a choice may open up between mulcting the taxpayer or losing those jobs.
Perhaps we are not reading Hansard closely enough, but we can find no evidence that such a group exists. That suggests a new dimension to change in the Commons.
It’s often said that modern MPs are increasingly rebellious (not least by this site). But they are so in a particular kind of way. More stand ready to put the interests of their constituents ahead of the blandishments of the whips.
But the Commons seems to be producing fewer Andrew Tyries – the awkward, angular former Treasury Select Committee Chairman, now a peer, who campaigned against climate change orthodoxy, for all his establishment status.
At any rate, climate change sceptics outside Parliament warn of terrible things to come – higher electricity bills, for example. We take the point, but query the scale – because we suspect that rebellion will finally come when the proverbial hits the fan.
To put it plainly, try telling Robert Halfon that his Harlow constituents must pay higher fuel duty to help meet some government target. He will revolt. As will all those other backbenchers who have no ideological or constituency stake in the push for zero emissions.
Maybe government will manage the transition, after all. But with COP26 coming down the tracks, and with a mass of coporates, lobbyists and cheerleaders clinging to its wagons and rooftop, this is a good moment to take stock.
Reducing emissions and securing supply are only two of a quartet of main policy objectives, the other two being keeping the lights on and keeping prices low. Remember: the Tory manifesto promised to lower energy bills for those in social housing.
How can these objectives be squared? Finding an answer doesn’t require a drive-by shooting of green policies. In some cases, we need more. For example, Rachel Wolf and others have made a strong case for a carbon tax, which is robust regardless of targets.
Nor are these wrong in themselves. For example, it would make sense to have a timetable for the take-up of Flood Performance Certificates – documents that set out the severity of flood risk for homes, and steps that could be taken to mitigate it.
And there are worse things in the world than politicians declaring success (“we’ve made great progress towards our zero emissions target”) while delivering failure (i.e: backing off some of the tax hikes necessary to actually hit them).
But the landscape ahead looks to be one of conflicting policy objectives, punts in new technologies that won’t always come off, pressure on consumers, business and taxpayers, jobs that won’t always be sustaintable – and further damage to the standing of politics.
In which case, a small boy ought to halt the wheezing emperor of government policy, and point out not that he has no clothes, but that he is overdressed amidst this warming weather. And would move more lightly were he to cast off the 2050 target.
ConservativeHome will run a mini-series on climate change policy tomorrow, Wednesday and Thursday.