In 2019 the United Kingdom became the first major economy to legislate for net-zero. Following guidance from the independent advisory body, the Climate Change Committee, the government set in law an ambitious climate change target that would allow it to meet its commitments to the Paris Agreement goals; a deal that, as Barak Obama stated at the time, will “help delay or avoid some of the worst consequences of global warming”.
But as the dust settles on the Brexit referendum and the covid sceptics are appeased by reckless easing of restrictions, a new culture war has emerged that has placed net-zero at the centre of its gaze. It has all the hallmarks of the early Brexit movement, with the same players moving to frame it in precisely the same way.
Worryingly, with a cost-of-living crisis on the horizon, we could find that Britain is fertile ground for a climate rebellion that, like Brexit, will have severe and far-reaching consequences.
Yet unlike Brexit, these consequences won’t wait around to be reversed in a second referendum.
What is net-zero and why is it important?
The term net-zero, as is noted on LSE, refers to the target of reducing the greenhouse gas emissions that cause global warming to zero by balancing the amount released into the atmosphere from sources with the amount removed and stored by carbon sinks.
Getting to net-zero requires significant abatement of greenhouse gas emissions across all sectors of the economy, with some sectors – such as manufacturing, aviation and shipping – likely to take significantly longer than others.
Offsetting emissions, therefore, can be done to achieve net-zero across an economy, a tactic that we have seen in wide use of late.
Why has it become a contentious issue?
The issue of achieving net-zero has become a contentious issue for two primary reasons.
The first is that it expensive. According to consultancy McKinsey, trillions of dollars will need to be spent every year for almost three decades to hit net-zero targets. On top of current spending, the equivalent of half of all corporate profits will have to be invested to tackle global warming, it says.
McKinsey highlights that gaining acceptance will be tough, especially from those paying energy bills. But the alternative, as Roger Hallam told The London Economic, is grim.
“It means the loss of people’s pensions in the next ten years, the loss of people’s incomes, the mass migration of hundreds of millions of people, the indescribable injustice to people of colour in the global south because of the collective selfishness of people in the north.
“We’re talking about the biggest crime in human history imposed by the rich against the global poor,” he said.
Referendum on the climate
The second contentious issue is that the government’s net-zero climate targets were, as Nigel Farage has pointed out, mandated on us without a choice. Calling for another referendum, the former UKIPer said, “it is a little bit like the European question: Everybody agrees and you’re not allowed to have you say”.
Of course, you could argue that having a planet fit to sustain life isn’t something that needs a grand debate. But many would have thought the same of having a seamless trade agreement with your biggest and closest trade partner, and we all know how that worked out.
Complacency on climate catastrophe
As Ben Wright recently wrote in the Telegraph, it is for precisely those reasons that ‘net zero’ could become the new Brexit culture war if we’re not careful.
He warned that, “consensus can be dangerous if it breeds complacency”, pointing out that “many supporters of EU membership thought the benefits were self-evident. Net-zero can similarly be presented as a set of policies with clear costs and abstract benefits being imposed by out-of-touch metropolitan experts.”
Regrettably, he could be bang on about that.