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Anne McElvoy: We’ve wasted 25 years...now we need real climate policies, not just hot air

·4-min read
Anne McElvoy  (Natasha Pszenicki)
Anne McElvoy (Natasha Pszenicki)

Cop26 is nearly upon us: and the diplomatic prelude kicks off today as the Government published its Net Zero transformation plans. You can’t fault the va-va-vroom of the Johnsonian rhetoric promising a big bet on wind power, on hydrogen, on electric vehicles, on gigafactories, on carbon capture and storage, all those things. And that’s driving a lot of the investment. Today’s climate change moments have their own A-list, so the PM is hosting the techster turned climate curer Bill Gates at the Science Museum and has told Mike Bloomberg he is placing “a big bet” on green investment.

Boris Johnson, always the wily pragmatist, sees his chance to shake off a reputation as the wild child of the democratic world and put “global Britain” at the heart of addressing global warming.

Cutting the carbs is, however, hard work — more so than any western government has yet admitted to a public torn between vague anxiety over extreme weather events, noisy activists (whose disruptive antics can do as much harm as good to their cause) and a paradoxical sense that the matter is too big to ignore and too hard to grasp.

Any advance towards the “net zero” emissions by 2050 needed to cap the rise in global temperature at 1.5C above pre-industrial levels requires urgent steps now — and also a sustained effort by 2030, agreed by the industrial nations with commensurate support for the developing world.

So today is the first big sample platter of real changes. But the flaccid announcement of a modest budget subsidising heat pumps to shifting us from our carbon-emitting gas boilers is a clue that the costs of enacting climate change are beginning to dawn. The funded plan subsidises a shift for just 90,000 households — well short of the original intention of a swift end to gas boiler sales (now downgraded to “an ambition” by 2035).

And this points to the political headache involved in the pursuit of net zero — electorates are broadly for it (good) but not yet fully clued in on how long a haul it will be. Essential steps like insulating houses and workplaces are expensive, while the consumer benefits come much later. Ford reveals today it is building a new generation of zero-emission cars, which is great news for those who would like to switch but baulk at the price. Going electric in London or driving none at all is fine in principle until ride-hailing firms run out of drivers or the local electric charging points are stacked up for hours with black cabs. It’s best to be realistic that the energy price squeeze is going to make this an even tougher proposition. Rising heating bills are a sign that successive governments were ill- prepared for what Dieter Helm, the doyen of energy analysts, has described as “a crisis that has caught ministers, Ofgem (the gas regulator) and companies out”. Add to that an inflationary risk which strengthens the hand of Rishi Sunak, the Chancellor who is wary of spending splurges and foresees inflation eating into his budget, and the question of how to fund the bolder Cop26 intentions becomes a lot trickier.

Geo-politics gets in the way too. As important as summits are, they are also part of a wider game of geo-political poker — played out (especially) between the US, China, Russia and India, the big four emitters. Johnson might counter that he has the ally who matters most here — namely Joe Biden. But he too has domestic handcuffs constraining how fast he can move. The US Congress is unlikely to clear a $2.5 billion funding pledge to help poor countries fight climate change by the time the US president touches down in Scotland.

Neither he nor the host can rely on active support from Moscow or Beijing — or even their leaders showing up. The Glasgow summit, whispers one minister involved, runs the risk of becoming a version of “Eco-Hamlet with very few visiting princes”.

None of that detracts from the fact that it is right for the UK to take Cop26 seriously. It is a chance to focus our minds on a threat that is real and urgent and simply arguing for better flood defences or hoping for some technological fix instead of concerted action will not remedy it. It does, however, compete with domestic priorities and a period of greater volatility in energy, geo-politics and alliances than was envisaged when the UN first convened the Cop meetings back in 1995. A lot of opportunity has been wasted since. A quarter of a century on is time to set priorities that can be delivered, not to muster schemes and dreams that disappear into thin, hot air.

Anne McElvoy is Senior Editor of The Economist

What do you think of the Government’s new net zero plans? Let us know in the comments below.

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