Retreating From 'Net-Zero'

John O'Sullivan28 Apr, 2024 4 Min Read
Not quite Waterloo yet but getting there.

It can’t have escaped your notice that the enthusiasm of the world’s governments for policies of decarbonization that go under the catchy title of Net-Zero has been waning throughout the democratic world in the past year. There was never much enthusiasm for Net-Zero in the non-democratic or “authoritarian” world to start with; it agreed to decarbonize only under pressure from the West and in return for Western wealth transfers, and it never seriously implemented the policy’s tougher restraints on economic growth. That’s especially true of China which has been building coal-fired power stations at a rate of knots.

But the Western democracies have been gripped by a missionary religious fervor, garbed in the white laboratory coat of science (or, more accurately, of Scientism), to lead the world towards a future of Net-Zero carbon emissions by example and climate diplomacy. Even if the theory of man-made global warming were sound—and the headline “imminent catastrophe” version is not supported by the U.N. and many scientific sources—it would not dictate or require Net-Zero policies. There are other and better policy responses—notably a mixture of nuclear power, market-led innovation, and the greater use of “green” natural gas as a “bridge” to lower emissions.

Until the last year, however, Western governments ignored these realities. That was always a case of temporary, if powerful, self-deception. As this column has repeatedly stressed, there is a simple and unavoidable clash between Net-Zero and political democracy. The first has been presented to us as an irresistible force, and the second is proving to be the immovable object that will derail it.

To infinity and beyond,

Why? Net-Zero requires cuts in living standards and changes in lifestyles that ordinary citizens won’t like and will vote to reject. If that was mere theory when we at The Pipeline first advanced it, political practice has since confirmed it. Government after government has recently been “scaling down” their targets for carbon reduction; withdrawing or postponing the policies needed to achieve it; and losing elections when proposing “carbon taxes” to fund it.

In recent days there’s been an especially dramatic example of this trend. Scotland’s “devolved” government (i.e., a regional authority with limited sovereignty within the United Kingdom) announced that it was abandoning its earlier Net-Zero target of cutting Scotland’s carbon emissions by 75 percent by 2030.

Or to be more precise, it did its best to conceal this embarrassing retreat by including it in announcements that his government was “accelerating” its program of cutting carbon emissions. Trailing the formal announcement of this “accelerated” program, Scotland’s First Minister, Humza Yousaf, told Scottish legislators:

This government will not move back by a single month, a week, or even a day from that 2045 target for achieving Net Zero.

But on the way to achieving this target in twenty years (when he is unlikely to be responsible for the next retreat), he will be abandoning the target for the next six years (for which he is still responsible).

That was embarrassing enough, because the First Minister is head of the Scottish National Party—i.e., a Scotland First nationalist—who has always presented his more ambitious carbon targets as evidence of Scotland’s greater moral virtue vis-à-vis the U.K. as a whole. Naturally, therefore, Yousaf blamed the U.K. prime minister, Rishi Sunak (who has done some modest retreating of his own on Net-Zero), for the Scottish government’s failure, as well as celebrating his prospective triumph in 2045. That kind of disguised retreat—marching behind a big brass band with flags flying—is familiar enough in politics and deceives only supporters and perhaps the speaker.

Humza Yousaf: no true Scotsman...

But Yousaf could take real comfort in the thought that the Opposition parties in the Scottish Assembly were as committed to Net-Zero orthodoxy as his own Scottish National Party and therefore unable to take full advantage of his embarrassment. For he probably knew from his discussions in Cabinet that he might be facing an election soon when his strongest opponents would be equally disarmed on the key issue.

Sure enough, there was the usual storm of outrage from the usual Green suspects in response to Yousaf’s Net-Zero retreat. But it ended in an unusual way: his coalition government of Scot-Nats and Greens broke up, and Yousaf now heads a minority government that could lose a parliamentary vote and face an election at any moment.

The present moment—when the SNP party is embroiled in a massive political scandal about party finances involving its previous leader, Nicola Sturgeon, and her husband—is particularly inopportune for a snap election. So Yousaf’s is particularly lucky that all the other parties, even the Scottish Tories, are committed to Net-Zero (with slightly different qualifications). Unless a new party or brilliant political entrepreneur emerges soon to offer a different approach to climate questions, a wounded Net-Zero (maybe under different management) will stagger on from postponement to postponement deterring new policies and investment in alternative innovations. That’s the worst of all possible worlds for Scotland.

It’s the position in most of the world too where opposing political parties are locked into joint commitments on climate policy which they made before they realized their dire political consequences. And the sharper minds in the environmentalist establishment have sensed that this particular game is up, as even the European Union is scaling back its Net-Zero policies to save its industries. They have been doing some productive re-thinking.

Not about the policies, of course—but about the terminology. Chris Stark, the chief executive of the Climate Change Committee in the U.K., has been worrying that the term “Net-Zero” has become a slogan that is now “unhelpful” because it’s become associated with a host of cultural issues, with campaigns against it, and as a result is blocking sensible reforms—none of which he expected. In his own words:

If it [net-zero] is only a slogan, if it is seen as a sort of holding pen for a whole host of cultural issues, then I’m intensely relaxed about dropping it. We keep it as a scientific target, but we don’t need to use it as a badge that we keep on every programme.

Intensely relaxed, eh? Into that fascinating insight into the mind of the "climate change" establishment, I shall return next time.

John O'Sullivan is editor-at-large of National Review, editor of Australia's Quadrant, founding editor of The Pipeline, 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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