10 May 2024

Net Zero zealotry is colliding with reality


A peremptory demand for Net Zero by 2050, we have been told for some time (especially by the Greens and Labour), is nothing to be frightened of. Our lives will seamlessly adapt, and we will see a new heaven of virtuous prosperity: not only an escape from the climate change which is all around us, but also plenty of decent jobs, not to mention opportunities for a booming private sector to make profits from new green products.

Anyone thinking of complacently swallowing this line might care to read a small story that broke earlier this week from the car industry.

Car sales are currently buoyant, and have been rising for nearly two years. But, put bluntly, new electric cars, which the government wishes to supplant petrol and diesel ones completely by 2035, are a dog. No one except businesses and fleet buyers seems interested: only one in six new EVs is bought by a private driver, and even this figure is down 20% or so in a month, with heavy discounting also rampant.

Not surprisingly, both manufacturers and the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders are less than happy. What are they saying? You can guess: it’s up to government to rescue the industry. The SMMT is demanding a massive VAT cut on EVs, a U-turn on the decision to apply the expensive Vehicle Excise Duty levy (an extra £190 per year on all cars costing more than £40,000) to electric cars from next year, and a government-led (and financed) programme to turbocharge the number of charging stations.

Ford, always keen to pile on the pressure, has added a further point. Manufacturers from the end of this year face penalties unless a minimum proportion of their sales are electric; the figure is 22% next year, rising to 80% in six years. In the absence of any vast increase in EV sales, the only way to avoid penalties, and one which Ford is certainly contemplating, is to make available fewer of the traditional vehicles for which there is a demand, which would result in yet more skyrocketing prices.

This tells us a good deal about Net Zero by 2050. The first point is that peremptory time-limited demands of this kind very often don’t work, at least when what is at stake is a major change in an important part of our lives such as personal transport.

Put simply, as regards an enormously important part of the green economy, we have now been told explicitly that there simply isn’t any money in it. The private sector, supposedly ready with the flick of a switch and a little retooling to change to mass-producing clean transport for the masses at a price the masses are willing to pay, has admitted what one suspects Tory and Labour politicians have privately known for some time: it can’t. The only way short of force to get ordinary people to choose to drive electric is for the government to pay them to do it through the tax system, which essentially means subsidising the auto-makers to make cars people don’t seem to want, and to provide, free of charge, the necessary infrastructure to use them.

There is also another side to it. We are told of overwhelming consumer support for the Net Zero programme. Well, up to a point, Lord Copper. It takes a brave interviewee or focus group member to admit that they’d prefer people to continue to drive smelly old Vauxhalls rather than spanking clean EVs. Whether they actually want the change for themselves is another matter: one suspects there are plenty of matters entirely separate from the lack of a handsome bribe at the public charge that make them very sceptical.

It’s not simply that a low-spec petrol or diesel car is less likely to catch fire without warning. It is easier to fuel if you don’t have a garage or driveway; probably less likely to suffer from a catastrophic fault; has until the end of its life a guaranteed worry-free range of several hundred miles once fuelled; can readily be repaired by your local garage; and doesn’t promise a hefty bill for a new battery after a few years.

The second point is that, while there is no doubt that in fifty years we will be far greener and more efficient in nearly all our activities (think of the polluting and inefficient cars, poisonous agricultural chemicals and inefficient lightbulbs of the 1970s), a call for Net Zero by a particular date is in many cases actually a call for a massive reduction in living standards for ordinary people. We have just seen this made clear as regards cars, where whatever governments may say, at least for the present the sheer utility of a medium-sized petrol runabout cannot be replaced by anything electric.

But it’s not only cars. In the last couple of years, we have gone through exactly the same process with home heating – expensive and inflexible electric heat pump, anyone, in place of the old but trusty boiler you turn on when it gets chilly? And more recently, in many countries throughout Europe, we have seen massive protests by farmers, who realise perfectly well that Net Zero targets will mean they can neither run their businesses effectively nor produce the food we like to eat.

Whisper it quietly, but whatever politicians may say for public consumption, few apart from the fanatics now seriously believe in Net Zero by 2050. We have already seen signs of this. Last year, Rishi Sunak pragmatically pushed back the proposed bans on new gas boilers and petrol cars. And just a week or so ago, Ursula von der Leyen, the doyenne of statist intervention through the EU’s Green Deal, said that she might well be prepared after next month’s Euro-elections to work with the EU Parliament’s European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) group, a movement with little time for major environmental gestures that make the elites feel good but – literally in some cases – leave ordinary people out in the cold.

In the end, Western governments need to accept what many have been saying for some time: they will have to get major environmental interventions past a sceptical public and persuade it to accept them. If this means openly abandoning Net Zero by 2050 or any particular year, so be it. Whatever the experts say, for elites to to try to bypass this process or to impose environmental virtue without such approval could create some far uglier scenes.

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Andrew Tettenborn is a professor of law at Swansea Law School.

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