1 November 2021

To solve climate change, stop the obsession with Net Zero and focus on small wins

By Andrew Hunt

It’s ‘one minute to midnight’, Boris Johnson has dramatically declared. As the great and the good gather in Glasgow for COP26, the PM has warned that it’s time to move from ‘aspiration to action’, or else risk being overwhelmed by global warming.

The problem for Johnson is that Net Zero, his drive to reduce the UK’s net territorial carbon emissions to zero by 2050, is already looking distinctly problematic. We do not have any clear idea how much it will cost or how to get there, what sacrifices will be required or whether they will even be worthwhile. In the immediate term a combination of cost of supply shortages, rising taxes and inflation mean that any policies that increase the burden on households risks becoming politically toxic.

Remember too that Net Zero itself is not actually the aim. Given how ubiquitous the slogan has become, you would be forgiven for forgetting that it only became the driving motif of our climate policy over the last couple of years, and – as Karl Williams explains here – for largely political rather than economic or environmental reasons.

The aim of our environmental policy is not to reach Net Zero for the sake of it, but to prevent or mitigate harmful changes to our climate in a way that is proportional to the threat. Clearly, reducing emissions is an important part of any effort to mitigate the impact of climate change, but focusing on emissions alone means we could lose sight of other potential solutions. For instance, soil scientist Walter Jehne is gaining attention for his work involving reinvigorating the water cycle – something he claims is easier, quicker and more effective than emissions cuts.

Net Zero also neatly encapsulates many of the problems with setting big, over-arching goals. As Goodhart’s law states, when a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure. If you give someone a single target and a deadline, it subsumes everything. People lose all ability to think laterally or creatively. They fail to balance the consequences and they try and fiddle the measurements to make the target. We’ve seen this countless times across organisations in both the public and private sector.

You can already see these tendencies playing out in Net Zero’s focus on territorial emissions. We can cut our domestic emissions and hit out targets by outsourcing polluting activities to countries like China. The problem is by doing so we outsource jobs and don’t actually cut global carbon emissions at all.

A problem of scale

So what should we do instead?

In 1984 organisational psychologist Karl Weick published a short academic paper titled Small Wins: Redefining the Scale of Social Problems. It is one of the most important contributions to policy design ever written. It’s well worth a read if you are involved in climate change or any other big policy challenge. Weick explains that, when trying to fix massive problems:

‘Efforts to convey their gravity disable the very resources of thought and action necessary to change them. When the magnitude of problems is scaled upward in the interest of mobilising action, the quality of thought and action declines, because processes such as frustration, arousal and helplessness are activated.’

Thus, overwhelming problems cause people to either give up before they start or focus on unrealistic solutions, leading to failure. That discourages potential allies and gives ammunition to detractors. Weick’s solution is to ‘recast larger problems into smaller problems where people can identify controllable opportunities of modest size that produce visible results’. That means setting small, tangible goals we know we can already achieve. When a large problem is broken down like this, each step becomes less intimidating and the risk of failure becomes manageable. Small wins are low-risk confidence-boosters that motivate those involved while winning over sceptics. That creates a domino effect as success builds on success. 

Just as Weick would have predicted, Net Zero is forcing us into a state of pessimism and poor decisions. Policies such as mandatory heat pumps and bans on petrol cars are overwhelming, and the costs unaffordable for people on average incomes. In pushing ahead with such far-reaching policies without thinking through implementation, we risk turning a large portion of the public against climate policy. You need only look at the Insulate Britain protests to see how visceral the public reaction can be when climate activism gets in the way of their day-to-day lives.

There’s another important advantage to the Small Wins approach to climate change: you won’t end up stranded by obsolescence. Technology is moving so fast that if we commit to big, centrally-planned policies, the entire country will be hamstrung by high-cost, uncompetitive ‘solutions’, while more nimble nations race away.

To illustrate this, look at the history of British energy policy. Over the last century we have stumbled through energy crisis after energy crisis. Much vaunted panaceas have included coal, nuclear, hydro, gas, biofuels, and now wind and solar. In practice, we have needed all of them. The only thing we actually know is that today’s solution won’t be the same as the solution in ten years time.

The way forward

There are three key ways in which we can embrace the fight against climate change without obsessing over Net Zero.

First, we should ditch the territorial distinction, which is both arbitrary and counter-productive. A tonne of CO2 from Timbuktu is the same as a tonne of CO2 from Todmorden. It doesn’t matter whether we reduce emissions domestically or internationally. If Johnson’s vision of a global free-trading Britain is to be realised, we should seize the most effective options no matter where.

Letting markets function properly is the second key component of lasting climate action that can command public support. South African miner Anglo-American is building some of the biggest solar and hydrogen projects on the continent. Why? Because they are far cheaper and more reliable than the troubled state power company, Eskom. Meanwhile, British supermarkets are pressuring suppliers to slash packaging in an effort to offset transport shortages and rising raw materials costs. I could list dozens more examples of corporate do-goodery that are also fantastic for profits. Free trade, lower taxes and a modest nudge via carbon pricing could get Adam Smith’s invisible hand working so fast we may not need government intervention at all. 

Finally, we need to embrace creative ameliorism, focusing on environmental opportunities that are painless and have positive externalities. These are the policies we should be doing anyway; where Net Zero is simply a nudge to get on with them

  • Force developers to build traditionally beautiful buildings. Traditional buildings last several times longer than modernist monstrosities and use materials with a lower carbon footprint. This is the ultimate recycling industry. Well constructed and attractive buildings are the world we want to live and work in. They reduce antisocial behaviour and are good for mental health. They even help with levelling up.
  • A cloud-based system of extra long warranties on consumer goods would slash environmental degradation and landfill, as well as reducing packaging and transport needs. It would improve consumer safety, reduce our dependence on China and create jobs for high-skilled STEM workers.
  • Use the UK aid budget to fight climate change and let the world’s poorest countries help us reach Net Zero. Pound for pound the most efficient climate projects are in the developing world. For example family planning and women’s education projects are five times more efficient at fighting climate change than domestic energy schemes. In other words, we can save billions, help the world’s poorest and empower women. 
  • Replace ugly road bollards and railings with ‘green street furniture’ made of carefully selected trees and plants. This reduces flooding and erosion, mops up pollution, and makes our roads more attractive.  
  • Sell off non-essential public sector parking spaces to reduce pollution and congestion, boost demand for sustainable transport, improve public health, raise billions for local and national government and create space for half a million new homes.

These are just a few ideas – there are hundreds more. By accumulating small wins, rather than unworkable, unaffordable top-down policies that risk alienating the public, we can crowd-source our way to climate freedom and make all our lives better in the process.

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Andrew Hunt is a writer, investor and policy creative. His latest ideas can be found at www.brainfartpolicy.com

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