Britain has ambitious climate change plans and two problems

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WCHICKEN HE COMES in the face of climate change, the UK government is not lacking in ambition and self-esteem. In 2019, he enacted a law committing to achieving zero net greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. A mid-sized country that accounts for 1% of global emissions thinks it can drag the rest of the world to a steady pace. UN climate conference next month in Glasgow. But is Britain serious about keeping its own promises? A flurry of government plans released this week suggests not.

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The net-zero strategy contains many bold targets, which often come with caveats. By 2035, Britain will be fully supplied with green electricity, “subject to security of supply”. By the same year, every new home heating system installed is expected to be an efficient electric heat pump or hydrogen boiler, provided the costs for such things fall to a reasonable level. Planting trees will more than double in speed.

Wisely, the government recognizes that there are many ways to achieve net zero emissions. Britain could move away quickly from fossil fuels and the electricity provided by wind turbines and new nuclear power plants. Alternatively, it could rely on hydrogen, capturing the carbon released when it is created from natural gas. The government will put money into many technologies – hydrogen production, small nuclear reactors, devices that remove carbon from the air – in the hope that some will operate cheaply.

“It’s more detailed and ambitious than anything you’ll find anywhere else in the world,” said Chris Stark, chief executive of the Climate Change Committee, an official watchdog. Inevitably, some ministries (like business and transport) have bolder and more detailed plans than others (like agriculture). But it helps to know who the latecomers are. Encouragingly, most political critics of the plans have argued that the government should be doing more, not less.

Yet reaching net zero, or even getting close to it, is so difficult that Britain has to do everything right. And there are two weak links in the chain that connects dreams to achievements. Unfortunately, these are the two strongest institutions in government.

The first is the Treasury. The problem is not so much that he could have provided more money to accelerate the green transition, even if it is true. A much-vaunted £ 450million ($ 620million) heat pump subsidy program may only cover 30,000 installations per year, for example. The bigger problem is what Jill Rutter, a former Treasury official who now works at the Institute for Government, a think tank, calls the department’s “full proprietary approach” to tax.

The Treasury sees its job as collecting money from the public and distributing it to other departments, to be spent (often recklessly, he fears) on their projects. He does not view taxes as instruments to help departments achieve their objectives. The transport department must therefore try to decarbonize the roads by subsidizing electric cars and banning the sale of gasoline and diesel ones. The most obvious (and economically efficient) route of taxing fuel more heavily is out of the question.

The second weak link is Prime Minister Boris Johnson. This week, he shoved for his government’s green plans with typical bonhomie. He happily misquoted Gordon Gekko from the movie “Wall Street”, compared himself to Moses and assured readers of the Sun newspaper that the “boiler police green shirts” would not “kick your door with their sandals” and grab their gas appliances.

The art of political selling and good humor are good things. The problem with Mr Johnson is that he can’t stand breaking bad news. The government’s net zero strategy contains soothing words about working with consumer choice. There is, as the Prime Minister says, not “a hair shirt in sight”. But if Britain is to reach net zero, many noses have to be disarticulated.

Mostly noses belonging to people on which Mr Johnson’s votes depend. Older people have a larger carbon footprint than younger people, largely because they tend to live alone or with another person. Their consumption patterns will have to change. Yet the Conservative government is counting on older voters (see charts). Unpleasant geographic patterns compound the problem. Installing a heat pump costs around 7% of average home equity in the Midlands and the North of England, where the Tories won many new votes in the 2019 general election, but less than 3 % in London, where the party gave up.

Mr Johnson could be bolder. A survey for The Economist by Ipsos MORI notes not only that 83% of Britons are concerned about climate change, but also that 51% believe that the cost of tackling this problem will, in a year, be greater than the savings made, for example, on heating bills and electricity. cheaper gasoline. Only 9% believe the savings will outweigh the costs. People expect the compromise to be more favorable in ten years. The British seem to be ready for the hair shirts. They just don’t want to wear them forever.

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This article appeared in the Great Britain section of the print edition under the title “Jolly green Giant”


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