One of the commonest errors in making public policy is to assume that the solution to a problem must be related to—indeed, generally the opposite of—whatever caused the problem. In fact there is no necessary general connection between a problem’s cause and its solution. In some cases, there may be such a link: for instance, getting someone who has just taken a drug overdose to swallow an emetic in order to vomit the problem out. On the other hand, when a fire brigade arrives at a burning building, it doesn’t search for the causes of the fire, it simply aims the water and extinguishes it.
Similarly, in dealing with the problem of "climate change," we face a range of possible solutions: some based on trying to reduce its presumed cause, namely the use of fossil fuels. This is the method we refer to as mitigation. Others are based on making the impact of fossil fuels less damaging, also known as adaptation. And a third based on technical “fixes” such as increasing cloud cover to block or even reverse warming.
These distinctions are important because it’s becoming clearer that the policies based on mitigation, notably net-zero—adopted by the United Nations, the European Union, and almost all the institutions of supra-national authority—have costs that are far heavier than the predicted costs of "climate change" itself.
Oh, shut up.
That’s an irrationality in itself, with further irrational consequences. For these heavier costs will have to be paid by people living today who are predicted to be considerably poorer than people living in the future. It's urgent too, because the costs will be arriving in the next few years— by 2025, 2030, or 2035 (experts differ) — with, for instance, “Green” tax levies and regulations mandating electric cars and home heating systems that are much more expensive (and often less efficient) than the ones they currently own. And that's not even taking into account the enormous capital investment, financed inevitably from higher taxes, that will be needed to “electrify” any country that opts for electric vehicles over petrol-driven ones.
What follows from all this is that "climate change" policy will have to move on from net-zero to far less costly solutions rooted in adaptation and technical innovation. That’s the background to the recent rash of government reversals of policy following electoral setbacks and consumer resistance to their plans.
Reliance on renewable energy sources looks likely to be the first casualty of this new recognition of reality. Sweden’s government announced in late June that it was abandoning its former target of a one hundred percent renewable energy supply and adopting instead what the government called a “technology-neutral” aspiration for a "fossil-free" energy supply. Sweden’s finance minister, Elisabeth Svantesson, told the Swedish parliament: “This creates the conditions for nuclear power. We need more electricity production, we need clean electricity, and we need a stable energy system.”
Sweden’s move from renewables to nuclear is a very significant one because the Swedes, like the Germans, have been highly averse to nuclear power. It probably marks the beginning of the end of “renewables” as the solution to global warming.
Sweden to Greta: get lost.
But as Dr. John Constable of Net-Zero Watch points out it’s a fairly modest change—moving from renewables to nuclear, biomass, and hydro-power and still aiming to abandon fossil fuels entirely—that’s only possible for a large country with a small population like Sweden. It couldn’t work for big industrialized nations like Germany, France, and the U.K. which must still rely massively on fossil fuels if their economies are to survive and prosper.
So these countries too are now having second thoughts about the net-zero policies that they have promoted both domestically and in international organizations. Also in late June for instance, Christian Lindner, Germany’s finance minister, announced that his country would not accept the E.U.’s regulation banning the sale of new petrol-driven cars from 2035 onwards.
Germany has been one of the strongest proponents of net-zero in the E.U., and the European Commission, backed by the European parliament, is proposing its ban in order to achieve a one hundred percent reduction in carbon emissions from 2035. The German rejection is thus a real shock to the E.U. system. And though such rebellions from Hungary, Poland, or even Italy might be suppressed by Brussels, Germany will have to be appeased. For the moment, then, fossil fuels will continue to power Europe’s transport.
Naff off, Greenies.
Brexit Britain is now able to make such decisions for itself. And though the Tory government under Rishi Sunak is still committed formally to net-zero and is even discussing unrealistically grandiose future plans to override local planning rules to build pylons everywhere, the political reality is that ministers are gradually shifting away from the regulations needed to implement it now. (Remember: in politics the short term is always much more important than the the long term.)
Leaks from Whitehall have thus recently been telling MPs and the media that the government will be abandoning its plan for a levy on household energy bills that would have funded the development of hydrogen as an alternative to gas heating. Apparently, the Energy Department has now realized that hydrogen is unlikely to replace gas heating. It’s also bad politics to increase people’s energy bills needlessly in the middle of an inflationary cost-of-living crisis. As the Tory chairman of the parliamentary Net-Zero Scrutiny Group, Craig Mackinlay, said when welcoming the dropping of the levy: “I hope this is the start of a commonsense journey for the government on energy policy.”
That hope is certainly not shared by Lord Deben, another Tory who chairs the official government advisory committee on "climate change," established by the U.K. Parliament as a body that would hold the government’s feet to the fire next time on "climate change" to prevent any backsliding from net-zero. Lord Deben is the most zealous advocate of net-zero in the U.K. Parliament. But there’s an odd bipartisanship emerging. Though they want different outcomes, Lord Deben’s analysis of the government’s actual conduct of policy is no different to Mr. Mackinlay’s. In a letter to the Prime Minister in the same week in June, he lamented:
The failure to act decisively in response to the energy crisis and build on the success of hosting COP26 means that the U.K. has lost its clear global climate leadership while game-changing interventions from the U.S. and Europe which will turbocharge growth of renewables, are leaving the U.K. behind. Inaction has been compounded by continuing support for further unnecessary investment in fossil fuels.
There’s a post-Brexit tradition in British politics of always comparing the country unfavorably to “Europe” when making an argument against some policy. On this occasion, however, if Lord Deben turns around to look at the latest developments in European energy politics, he will find that Britain is slap-bang in the van—and while the pundits and the special interests may bark, the caravan is moving on from net-zero.