27 April 2022

The big lie that underpins the new eco-militant movement

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There are plenty of irritating things about the new eco-militant movement, whether it is the Greta Thunberg faction, Extinction Rebellion, Insulate Britain, Just Stop Oil, or whatever new group may have sprung up in the meantime. 

For a start, there is the aggressive hyper-moralism and absolutism, which often lends itself to bizarre conclusions. (Just the other day, a veteran Extinction Rebellion activist called for a purge of ‘rich Boomers’, in revenge for climate change.) Then, there is the excessive and unwarranted self-confidence. There is the eagerness to disrupt other people’s lives, and to force their own pet obsessions on everyone else. There is the knee-jerk anti-capitalism, which is particularly absurd given the terrible environmental track record of non-capitalist economies. There is the general cultishness of the movement, and the complete inability and/or unwillingness to comprehend competing viewpoints.

But these are not even the worst things about them. 

What irritates me more than anything about this movement is that it is built on the idea – epitomised in Greta Thunberg’s ‘blah blah blah’ speech – that we are currently not doing anything on climate change, and that before they came along, it never occurred to anyone to do so. 

Where have these people been over the past 10, 20 or 30 years?

Climate change has been a high-profile issue and a political priority for a long time, and we are already doing a huge amount about it – at a considerable cost. I struggle to think of any other issue on which there is such a broad consensus, spanning all major political parties, trade unions, business associations, universities, charities and civil society groups. To say that a movement to ‘raise awareness’ of climate change is kicking at an open door would be an understatement. Britain needs a movement to ‘raise awareness’ of climate change like the Vatican needs one to raise awareness of Catholicism.

A little recap. Climate change policies in the UK go back to at least 1989. That year saw the introduction of two major policy instruments for decarbonisation, the successors of which are still with us today: the Fossil Fuel Levy and the Non Fossil Fuel Obligation. The former was a tax on energy suppliers (although ultimately, on their customers), proportionate to the amount of fossil fuel-generated energy they purchased. The latter was an obligation to purchase a specified amount of energy from nuclear or renewable sources (with nuclear later dropped).

In 1992, the UK became a signatory of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, a forerunner of the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, at which quantitative targets for reducing CO2 emissions were agreed. 

Those were not just slogans and gestures. They were followed up with specific policy measures. In 1993, the UK government introduced the Fuel Price Escalator, under which fuel duties would automatically rise in real terms every year. It was not the only fiscal measure of its kind. By 1997, the UK had eight major environmental taxes (although not all them primarily to address climate change), which, between them, accounted for more than 8% of all tax revenue.

A milestone in climate policy was the launch of the EU’s Emissions Trading Scheme (EU-ETS) in 2005, which included Britain as a then EU member. This is a cap-and-trade scheme, which gives the government (in this case, at the EU level) direct control over the total amount of carbon emissions. Since the launch of this scheme, companies no longer have an automatic right to release carbon into the atmosphere. They need to obtain permits for each ton of CO2 they want to release, and pay for that privilege. After Brexit, this scheme was replaced by an equivalent UK ETS. 

Throughout the 2000s (and thus more than a decade before Insulate Britain were set up), there were numerous initiatives to increase energy efficiency, especially in housing. 

In 2006, Al Gore’s documentary An Inconvenient Truth became a major box office success around the developed world. A movie review in the liberal-conservative German newspaper Die Welt captures the conformist pressure that prevailed at the time:

‘There is only one question which troubles us: what exactly is ‘inconvenient’ about this movie? Everyone is totally enthusiastic about it: rave reviews, a morally enraptured audience, environmentalist groups that are drunk with joy. In short: all-round applause. Never has an ‘inconvenient’ truth been so convenient.’

Quite so. 

Another milestone in UK climate policy was the 2008 Climate Change Act, which set a legally binding target (and various interim targets) to reduce CO2 emissions by 80% relative to 1990 levels by 2050. It was passed almost unanimously, with only five MPs voting against it. By that time – Greta Thunberg was still at nursery and Extinction Rebellion would not be set up for another 10 years – the last thing one could have accused Britain of was a lack of awareness of climate change, or a lack of willingness to address it. Excessive groupthink would have been a more plausible accusation. 

Despite the financial crisis, the Brown years saw a flurry of climate change-related policy initiatives, and this continued seamlessly in the Cameron years. There are fairweather issues which governments only pursue in good times, or which depend on the goodwill of a particular political party or faction. Climate change is neither of those. Whoever is in government, and whatever the economic or fiscal situation – climate change is a top priority issue in the UK. Extinction Rebellion and the Greta movement are probably the first political movements in history that had already comprehensively won every major battle before they were even founded.

What about the results?

In the early 1990s, carbon emissions in the UK stood at over 10 tonnes per capita. By 2007, they had dropped to around 9t, and today, they have fallen to below 6t.

How much of that is explained by ‘carbon leakage’, the tendency to outsource carbon-intensive production to countries with less stringent environmental standards, and then import the final product?

The answer is: some of it is, but most of it is not. Consumption-based emissions have always exceeded production-based ones, but they have also fallen by more than a third since 2007, namely from more than 12t per capita to less than 8t.  

Does this mean that there is no need for an environmentalist movement in the UK anymore? Should settled movements such as Greenpeace or Friends of the Earth have declared victory more than a decade ago, and dissolved themselves? Should the newer ones, such as the Greta movement and Extinction Rebellion, never have been set up in the first place? 

Perhaps not quite. We are doing an awful lot on climate change, but we are not necessarily doing the right things. The fact that there are now so many climate-related policy instruments means that climate policy is often messy and inconsistent. The challenge is not to ‘do more’, but to tidy things up, rationalise and streamline them, so that we can pursue environmental aims in a more rational and cost-effective way. 

That would be an environmentalist cause worth supporting. But this would require a movement which is, temperamentally, the exact opposite of the current ones. It would require a movement with more nerds, and fewer zealots. That is not just asking a leopard to change its spot, it is asking the leopard to turn itself into an altogether different animal.

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Kristian Niemietz is Head of Political Economy at the Institute of Economic Affairs.

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