30 August 2023

Is Net Zero a youth tax?

By M.W Pedersen

Conventional wisdom has it that ‘young people’ care a great deal about climate change. This, we are told, must weigh against any temptation to ditch Net Zero to appease ‘Red Wall’ voters (in errr… Uxbridge). Yet the evidence that my generation can be won round to a party they loathe as long as Theresa May’s legacy policy is defended to the last man is astonishingly thin. If anything, we have the most to lose from the dogged pursuit of this arbitrary target.

Let’s start with the polling. One recent survey found that 31% of 16-24 year-olds say they are ‘very worried’ about climate change, compared to 18% of over 65s. While superficially compelling, this serves only to simplify, rather than clarify, the issue. It is not, for example, a contradiction for young people to believe the environment is a major issue facing their generation and disagree with Net Zero. A young person in 1962 might acknowledge nuclear war as a relatively serious threat without endorsing an invasion of Cuba via the Bay of Pigs or the war in Vietnam.

And when you dig a little deeper, young people rank the environment well behind housing, the economy and healthcare as a priority – which would suggest that when progress could be made in any of these areas at the expense of Net Zero the Conservatives might gain younger voters rather than alienate them. As Sebastian Payne has pointed out, ‘voters do not disagree with Net Zero – they disagree with how it is being implemented’. Until voters are accurately informed of how Net Zero will be achieved, and asked honest questions like ‘would you be happy being £900 poorer to achieve Net Zero?’, the sensible politician will take the polls with a pinch of salt.

Added to this is the fact that the burden of sacrifice necessary to achieve decarbonisation by 2050 will not be carried equally between generations. For 20 years, a sinister plenitude of policies have been stacking up against the youth, and as result young people today own fewer assets than any of their forebears. Those who rely solely on wages for income are hardest hit by inflation as their wages are worth less.

The solution to this, of course, is growth – when the economy grows, wages rise irrespective of any change in the value of assets. There is broad consensus among economists that high energy prices are one of, if not the, biggest constraint on growth – raising the costs of producing goods and services in the UK. And arguably, Net Zero policies have so far done more to drive up energy prices than bring them down.

If Net Zero will gut the earning potential and savings of the youth, what about their consumption habits? One reason the British millennial is so much more politically sedate than the zoomer, is that their low ownership of assets was compensated for by the relatively high purchasing power of the 2010s. This environment does not look set to continue under the Net Zero regime. Consider cheap flights to Europe, which once enabled young people to celebrate the end of their A Levels with booze-drenched holidays in the sun. Now demands that airline profits be ‘offset’ against emissions will put these beyond the reach of anyone under 30 once more.

And while older generations enjoyed free healthcare, education and massive injections of quantitative easing, climate taxes will be used to pay off the debt that has accrued as a result of all this state largesse.

But perhaps the most annoying feature of Net Zero rhetoric is how it legitimises this generational inequality by making impositions seem like preferences. Consider, how cycling in London is frequently framed as a choice by young people to abjure cars. Is this because young people are especially climate conscious? Or is it because they are too poor to afford a car, insurance and parking costs in the capital? It’s easy to imagine the same logic being weaponised by NIMBYs – we clearly don’t need to build more houses when so many young people are living at home!

Yet when barriers to market entry are lower, young people’s consumer choices look rather different. Take fast fashion, which is so cheap and accessible that most of it ends up in landfill. The huge popularity of online retailers like Shein – which sells 30,000 items a day in the UK – suggests that support for the green agenda is no match for the allure of the £5 dress. And if there’s little evidence for a preference for ethical fashion, why should we expect transport, housing or holidays to be any different?

Perhaps this explains the geriatric nature of Just Stop Oil and Extinction Rebellion protests. At blockades in central London, or marches through University towns, revving mobility scooters far outnumber the youth for whom this is, supposedly, the most important issue in politics. Just Stop Oil’s founder, Roger Hallam, is a former farmer pushing 60 and his biggest financial backer, Dale Vince, is a similarly late-middle aged millionaire who has made a fortune out of government subsidies. Of course, Just Stop Oil can find young(ish) people for the odd camera appearance, but what does it tell you that these of young activists never seem to get anywhere near to the organisation’s leadership roles? 

All of this suggests that far more is made out of young people’s commitment to green politics than the evidence supports. More rigorous, targeted polling would likely reveal a more complicated picture. The Conservative Party should be much more open-minded about moving on from generationally biased environmental policies. This does not mean abandoning Net Zero altogether or ignoring the negative impacts of industrial activity – but rather articulating a real alternative agenda tailored to the material interests of young people.

Green politics is just another way that Boomers exert their influence over our politics – it’s time for the youth to take back control.

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M.W Pedersen is a writer.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.