According to the Business Department’s own tracker, almost two in five people were unaware of Net Zero this winter, and voters’ level of knowledge about it has “remained relatively low”. One must expect uplift before COP26 begins this autumn. All the same, this lack of engagement is, in one sense, good news for Boris Johnson.
These are the people most likely to register TV pictures of the event fleetingly, if at all, and clock the Prime Minister looking, probably, untidy and, possibly, statesmanlike, as he urges world leaders to rise to the green challenge. We accept that most voters, including these ones, are very hard to impress. All the same, better positive pictures than the Government’s usual troubles, at least for Johnson.
He will also want not to lose control of the summit, or at least be seen not to do so. And COP26 could conceivably implode altogether, if the biggest carbon emitters, or a group of growing ones, refuse to play ball. All the same, that’s not what’s happened before and it’s unlikely to happen now: the sherpas, working parties and politicians will surely produce something.
This would be another feather in the Prime Minister’s eco-cap, as would be the impression that he and Joe Biden are on the same page. Admittedly, voters are less impressed by American presidents than some would have you think: remember Obama’s counter-productive Brexit referendum intervention on trade deals.
Nonetheless, one of Johnson’s key foreign policy policy aims is to get along with this Democrat administration, and he is closer to Biden on climate change policy than he ever was to Donald Trump. And that’s more or less the upside of COP26 for the Prime Minister. The downside is at least as visible.
The conventional wisdom is that one has to be a green world leader to get much done at one of these events. We greet this claim with a raised eyebrow. As the United Nations itself puts it, “we are not on track to meet the Paris Agreement target to keep global temperature from exceeding 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels”.
This isn’t because of a failure of British leadership or otherwise, but because Russia and India are resistant to green politics, China is still stacking up new coal plants (though it is also the world’s largest invester in renewables), and America is still the second-largest emitter (though it has reduced its emissions per head)…and the developing world is carbon-reliant.
What the big players do at COP26 will count for much more than a Britain which accounts for some one per cent of global emissions. But insofar as the approach of the host country counts, Johnson is in difficulty. Put aside for a moment Britain’s record on decarbonisation under previous governments, which is very good, and ponder the prospects for it under this one.
The scene is set for the practice to work (in other words, for emissions to continue to fall), but not the theory (that’s to say, the framework of Government policy, which is a mass of emission reduction targets, clustered around the central one of Net Zero by 2050). Only last week, the irresistible force of Number 10’s enthusiasm for these targets ran slap bang into the immovable object of Treasury resistance.
The Chancellor “is understood to have baulked at estimates of hitting net zero at more than £1.4 trillion…the Office For Budget Responsibility (OBR) calculated the cost of making buildings net zero at £400 billion, while the bill for vehicles would be £330 billion, plus £500 billion to clean up power generation and a further £46 billion for industry”.
This political struggle is not being played out in front of a nation hostile to decarbonisation. According to that Business Department tracker, only one per cent of the public doesn’t believe in climate change. Almost 80 per cent support renewable energy. The same proportion is concerned about changes to the climate. Nine in ten claim to have changed their behaviour in some way.
However, some 51 per cent those polled said they thought that climate change is either entirely or mainly caused by human activity – which leaves 49 per cent believing that it is only partly a consequence of it or not at all. The question that follows is how a nation at ease with decarbonisation in principle, but sketchy about “the science”, is likely to react in practice to government attempts to speed it up.
Voters seem to us to break down into three main groups. First, the Hard Greens – younger, urban voters who are up not only for decarbonisation but deindustrialisation, too. Almost none of them will vote Conservative. Next, the non-Greens, by which we mean less people who are hostile to cutting carbon emissions than fearful that they will be taxed to pay for the reduction.
There will be a mass of these people in the new northern and midlands seats that the Tories won in 2019. Finally, there are the Soft Greens – more affluent voters likely to be found in large numbers in more traditional Conservative seats, as well as in others. Bim Afolami’s Hitchin and Harpenden constituency is one of them.
Our columnist was plain in his recent view on this site that they, as well as those suffering from fuel poverty, will expect to be bailed out. “The cost impacts on the vast majority of voters must be minimal,” he wrote. “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.”
Put all this together, and one has a national audience that, in the medium term, will expect its decarbonisation to be subsidised and, in the short, is unlikely to be wowed, if at all engaged with the issues, by the outcome of COP26. Presumably the Prime Minister will achieve “wins” this autumn on coal, cars, cash and trees: his four priorities (which is why they will have been selected).
All the same, the history of climate change summits isn’t encouraging. Kyoto stressed binding commitments. It didn’t work, at least if one’s measure is lower emissions worldwide. Paris took a more voluntarist approach. That didn’t work either. “We want the developed world to kick the coal habit entirely by 2030,” Johnson said yesterday.
But those following COP26 are unlikely to believe that deeds to that effect will follow words. In the meantime, Ministers will find themselves exposed to the logic of the Government’s own argument. “We’re on the brink of catastrophe,” the headline above Alok Sharma’s Observer interview last weekend proclaimed.
Why is the car parked in your drive not an electric one? Do you rinse your dishes before putting them in the washing up machine, as Allegra Stratton suggests? Does the smoke curling from your chimney come from a wood stove, by any chance? When are you going vegan? These fun questions and many more are coming soon to a Cabinet Minister near you.