Getting to Net-Zero: Is It Worth It?

John O'Sullivan25 Aug, 2020 6 Min Read
Carbon neutrality by 2050 or bust!

At the end of last week two men were selected as the leaders of the main opposition parties in North America—Joe Biden as the Democratic presidential candidate in the U.S. and Erin O’Toole as the leader of the Conservative Party of Canada. They’re very different people with very different ideas, but if both of them are elected, each is likely to exert a decisive influence on the other on the central political issue of energy policy and climate change.

But look, first, at who they are and what they’ve done. Biden has been a professional politician for almost all his adult life. After graduation and four years of lawyering, he became a U.S. senator in 1973 and has since remained in Washington for seven senatorial terms and two terms as U.S. vice-president. He is usually defined as a moderate Democrat, which in practice means he has an acute sensitivity to the shifts of opinion in his party and an unrivaled ability to adapt to them without apparently moving his feet.

That means at present he is being dragged leftwards by a Democratic party that is rapidly moving from liberalism to a more radical progressivism. Thus, when his party’s radicals demand to “defund the police,” he is described by an AP as wanting “some of the funding for police [to] be redirected into different programs, such as mental health counseling” which might or might not be a difference depending on the amount re-directed.

Joe and Jill.

O’Toole had a more varied career as first an officer in the Royal Canadian air force and then as a corporate lawyer until he was elected to Parliament in Ottawa eight years ago. Because he served in the RCAF sea rescue missions, he’s one of the few politicians anywhere who, like lifeguard Ronald Reagan, can claim to have saved lives. He’s a moderate conservative in an avowedly conservative party, but one who wants to broaden its base without throwing principles overboard. That’s a risky game to play, as Biden’s zig-zagging career illustrates, but O’Toole has found two ways to play it.

The first is to make policy into a balancing act. As a Catholic who supports choice on abortion, he also defends a conscience clause that would enable health professionals to refuse to assist in abortions if they have moral/religious reasons for doing so—and respecting conscience is an important principle. The second is to look for and elevate new issues that attract new supporters without alienating old ones. He was an early supporter of the idea of CANZUK—warmer and better trade and migration relationships between Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the U.K.—which seems to be an increasingly realistic policy now that the U.K. is making trade deals with CANZUK members.

It isn’t hard to tell Biden and O’Toole apart, and if it were, the policy packages that appear in their manifestos would make it very clear. They are separated by a vast ideological gulf—except in one key respect. Both men and their parties have committed themselves very firmly to one particular extreme policy outcome: they are both committed to the principle of making their economies “carbon neutral” by 2050—indeed, Biden has upped the ante on this with a revamped plan to spend two trillion dollars in making all of electricity production carbon-neutral by 2035. (I think that looks like this: $2,000,000,000,000—its cost to you we’ll come to in a moment.)

Now, no one thinks of this policy as extreme because it’s supported overwhelmingly by most Western governments, most mainstream political parties (and, as it happens, most “populist” parties too), most of the media, most cultural institutions, the United Nations, and all the great and good around the globe. When a bill reflecting an earlier version of this was passed in the U.K. Parliament, only five MPs voted against it.

There’s been a slight down-tick in popular support for the policy since the policy response to Covid-19 both imposed heavy costs on ordinary people—with the prospect of many more to come—and weakened the credibility of scientists and computer modelling. A recent opinion poll showed that it ranked only fifth in the table of national problems facing the voters.

That will have little effect on elite opinion unless it takes the form of voting out MPs and Congresspersons respectively. As yet we’re quite far from that. Because its costs are in the future, a policy of saving the world is bound to be popular. And so, for the moment, making their economies “carbon neutral” by a given date is supported by both leaders.

But there is a vital distinction that politicians repeatedly ignore—and that I have repeatedly stressed in vain—between the popularity of a policy and the popularity of the consequences of a policy. The classic example is government control of prices and incomes which is always popular because it seems “fair” and advantageous to the poor, but which always becomes extremely unpopular because it leads to shortages of goods with controlled prices, black markets with much higher “real” prices, and exemptions for key workers who multiply in numbers the longer the policy lasts.

Carbon neutrality has enormous costs—so enormous that governments do their best to suppress their own estimates of what they are likely to be.  Only New Zealand has been honest or rash enough to do so. As the Danish economist and head of the Copenhagen Consensus, Bjorn Lomborg, pointed out recently in a New York Post oped, adapted from his new book, False Alarm: How Climate Change Panic Costs Us Trillions, Hurts the Poor, and Fails to Fix the Planet:

It will cost 16 percent of its GDP each and every year by 2050, making it more costly than the entire New Zealand public expenditures for education, health, environment, police, defense, social protection, etc. (My italics.) 

New Zealand, however, is an energy superpower only in hydro- and thermal power. Both the U.S. and Canada, however, are at present energy superpowers across the board—in oil, gas, hydro, and nuclear power since they have both fossil fuels and uranium galore and in recent years they have invented ways of accessing them more economically, such as fracking. The impact of carbon neutral policies would be far more damaging to Canada and the U.S. than to any other countries in the world except Australia and the Middle East for that reason—far more damaging, that is, than a 16 percent annual fall in GDP.

Erin O'Toole and American friend.

Biden and O’Toole have faced this dilemma—choosing a popular policy that has catastrophic economic consequences—in somewhat different ways. Biden, “an old man in a hurry,” has gone for broke. He’s adopted the most extreme version of an extreme policy and hoped that its dire results would not be noticed or, if noticed, not believed by most voters in the heat of an election campaign.

That’s certainly a risk. Already, a Trump campaign spokesman, Hogan Gidley, has described the policy as "like a socialist manifesto that promises to massively raise taxes, eliminate jobs in the coal, oil or natural gas industries, and crush the middle class. There is no way he can sell this radical agenda to union workers in energy-producing, manufacturing, or auto industry states like Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, or Wisconsin.”

In this election, however, maybe the policy will sneak through under the smokescreen of all the rest of the hellzapoppin shenanigans in both campaigns.

O’Toole is taking no such risks. True to his strategy of balancing, he opposes a federal carbon tax—carbon taxes are the main unpopular element in the carbon-neutral strategy—but will assist the Canadian provinces if they adopt such taxes on their own.  Along the same lines, he promises “a plan to get to net-zero emissions in the oil and gas industry through the use of technologies like electrification generated from sources such as nuclear and wind and carbon capture, with the government providing incentives similar to those that were used to stimulate the early development of the oilsands.”

In other words he’s hoping to be able to save Canada’s energy industries—and his own political prospects if he becomes prime minister—by relying on technical breakthroughs like “carbon capture” that would allow oil and gas (and presumably coal) to continue to be the basis for electricity generation. That’s not unreasonable as a political strategy—it’s traditionally known as “waiting for something to turn up”—but technical breakthroughs can’t be guaranteed to arrive on time. What about the interim?

Well, O’Toole may be helped by a deus ex machina in the modest form of Joe Biden. He is facing an election in just ten weeks on November the 3rd whereas the date of O’Toole’s rendezvous with destiny is more uncertain. Canada’s election must be held no later than October the 19th, 2023, but Canada’s scandal-hit minority Liberal government could fall at any time.

If Biden were to be elected in November, he would be unrolling his energy policy in early 2021 and its economic and industrial costs would begin to be apparent no later than Spring 2022. (Its benefits, being invisible, will never be apparent.) If they are as disastrous as the policies are bold, Biden will be a marvelous negative example of the economic consequences of courageous carbon neutrality.

On the other hand Trump may win—in which case Biden will provide a marvelous negative example of the political consequences of courageous carbon neutrality.

I don’t see how O’Toole can’t not enjoy the 2020 US presidential election.

John O'Sullivan is editor-at-large of National Review, editor of Australia's Quadrant, and President of the Danube Institute. He has served in the past as associate editor of the London Times, editorial and op-ed editor for Canada's National Post, and special adviser to Margaret Thatcher. He is the author of The President, the Pope and the Prime Minister: Three Who Changed the World.

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