Bim Afolami: After the reshuffle, back to the future – NHS queues, rising energy bills, and higher prices

20 Sep

Bim Afolami is MP for Hitchin & Harpenden.

As the Prime Minister said at Cabinet on Friday morning, it is “half time” in this Parliament. We have two more years to deliver on our election pledges before shaping up for the next election. Covid has basically taken up the vast majority of this Parliament so far, not only preventing us from focusing on our wider domestic agenda (though, very importantly, we have delivered Brexit), but also creating new problems, such as lan extra £350 billion in public debt and huge NHS waiting lists.

By two years from now, levelling -p needs to be noticed on the ground, people need more money in their pockets, and public services need to be consistently improving. Is this going to be straightforward to deliver? In a word, no.

The Government reshuffle was a significant start on moving forwards. Much has rightly been made of the importance of Michael Gove’s new beefed-up MHCLG – now LUHC: the department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities – with responsibility for housing, local government, devolution and the Union.

Education has severe challenges, from the difficulties of our exam system to the need to rebalance public spending from our universities towards the further education sector. Both Michael Gove (LUHC Secretary) and Nadhim Zahawi (Education Secretary) are extremely capable, with very good new junior ministers in their departments – in particular Neil O’Brien in LUHC and Alex Burghart in Education. But the stakes are high. If these departments fail over the next two years, the Government will fail too. We don’t have long to start delivering.

However, the most important domestic department for the next two years is the Department of Health. The public has gradually grown to trust us with the NHS, ignoring the propaganda from the Labour Party and the doctors’ and nurses’ unions. The most significant aspect of the Health and Social Care Levy which passed the Commons last week was the implicit realisation that the political risk of potential NHS failure is even worse than the risk of being seen as a Conservative Party who broke a manifesto commitment not to raise taxes. (Even though a pandemic was not in the manifesto!)

The NHS’s problems are of acute public and political importance. Since the start of the pandemic, the number of people waiting for NHS treatment in England has grown by a fifth. Some 5.3 million people were waiting for treatment in May 2021, up from 4.4 million in February 2020. There has been a particularly sharp increase in the number of people waiting for longer than a year.

Yet the number of people on the waiting list is expected to rise much further. Sajid Javid has warned that it is ‘going to get a lot worse before it gets better’, and could grow to 13 million.

The challenge here is monumental, and the department is also pushing through the Health and Care bill, which it seeks to remove barriers to integrating services to improve health outcomes and reduce health inequalities.

On top of all of this, we are not fully out of the woods on Covid yet, and doctors warn of a difficult winter with significant flu and RSV cases. This is a Department that may hold the fate of the Government in its hands.

The economy is facing its own headwinds too. Yes, we are bouncing back after Covid – according to the International Monetary Fund’s latest World Economic Outlook report, the UK economy will expand seven per cent this year, a sharp increase from the 5.3 per cent predicted in the Fund’s previous report in April. This is fastest in the G7.

However, the ghost of inflation past stalks us. I wrote about this here (in June, and worries about rising prices and costs of living are growing. One key aspect of inflation is energy prices, especially in the winter. Household energy bills are to rise after prices on the UK’s wholesale electricity market soared to a record high last month. The average market price reached £107.50/MWh – up 14 per cent on July, and well above the previous record of £96/MWh recorded in the run-up to the 2008 global financial crisis.

Last month, the industry regulator Ofgem announced it would lift the maximum price cap on energy deals by more than 12 per cent, after a sharp rise in the market price for gas and electricity. This increase is driven by a rise of over 50 per cent in energy costs over the last six months, with gas prices hitting a record high as the world emerges from lockdown. Coupled with rapidly rising costs for many foodstuffs, cars, and consumer goods (largely due to a combination of global macroeconomic factors), it is likely that most voters will feel a real pinch this autumn.

The Just About Managings (remember them!) will have a much tougher time. This will be especially the case if the Bank of England seeks to spike the rise in inflation in the coming months with a rise in interest rates (though at the moment I think this is unlikely). Shortages of certain foods and other key goods, largely due to damaged supply chains after Covid and not enough HGV drivers, are growing in the short term. This not only likely to put up prices, but also become a very visible and real problem for ordinary people who just go about their daily lives without thinking much about politics: i.e. most voters. This will come at political cost, particularly if the press builds up public anxiety about Christmas shopping which leads to a degree of stockpiling.

The difficulties with rising prices and energy bills will coincide with the much awaited Net Zero strategy (expected in mid-October) followed by COP26 in November. The net zero strategy will have to answer the knottiest questions on the environmental agenda such as: how are we going to replace boilers in millions of homes or better insulate buildings? How are we going to manage the shift away from petrol and diesel cars?

Whilst I am confident that there are huge economic opportunities over the medium term, in the short term there will be certain costs. Though these costs are a necessary part of implementing this critically important task of getting to net zero, being seen to impose greater costs at a time of rising prices will be politically challenging.

The next year brings rising prices, higher energy bills, and NHS difficulties. This will not be an easy atmosphere for the Government, and the Party, to operate in.

Sally-Ann Hart: We need to turbo-charge Mother Nature’s power

11 Sep

Sally-Ann Hart is the MP for Hastings and Rye, and was a councillor in Rother.

Following this summer’s flooding, drought and fire events across Europe, it is hard to understand why some people remain unconvinced about climate change.

The recent report from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change found that the world is warming faster than previously anticipated, and climate change is already affecting every single region of our planet.

I very much welcome the UK’s lead in tackling climate change; the UK was the first G7 country to legislate to achieve net zero by 2050, and we are decarbonising faster than any other G20 country.

The Government has already made huge strides in policy-making to protect and enhance our environment:

  • The Prime Minister’s 10-point Plan lays the foundations for the UK to lead the Green Industrial Revolution, and accelerate our path to net-zero;
  • The Agriculture Act, which changes the way farmers are supported, centres funding support around incentivising sustainable farming practices, creating habitats for nature recovery and supporting the establishment of ecosystems, such as new woodland;
  • and the landmark Environment Bill, which puts our environment at the heart of all government policymaking.

I wholeheartedly support the Government aims as regards our environment and reducing carbon emissions. Restoring nature is a central theme, with initiatives such as Natural Environment Investment Readiness Fund, aimed at driving private investment in nature-based solutions to climate change, or the Green Recovery Challenge Fund, which has backed projects which not only boost nature recovery, but also support and create jobs.

But we need to ask whether all these policies will be enough. Nature recovery is being increasingly acknowledged to be fundamental in fighting against climate change, but we need to unleash the full potential of nature as she can do much more; we need to ramp up action in relation to nature-based solutions, especially ahead of COP26 and the publication of the Government’s comprehensive net zero strategy later this year.

Natural habitats in oceans and on land can store vast quantities of carbon. To quote Socrates, ‘He is the richest who is content with the least, for content is the wealth of nature’, and nature provides us with a wealth of solutions to combat climate change.

G20 finance ministers have recognised that nature-based solutions are the most cost-effective, and represent more effective and sustainable investment to protect and revive the planet – to store and capture carbon. But it is also recognised that nature-based solutions receive a very small percentage, around 2.5%, of public climate mitigating funding.

As a Conservative Environment Network Nature-Based Solutions Champion, I have been championing the cause of nature-based solutions to reduce our carbon emissions, and whilst the UK Government has already invested in nature-based solutions, including tree planting, there are many ways we can use the natural environments to do this.

Take our humble, traditional English hedgerows as an example, which are some of the most accessible wildlife habitats along roads, footpaths, fields, gardens and railways. Thousands of hedgerows have gone; removed for increasing farming productivity in the mid-20th century. Many remaining hedgerows have been left un-managed, over-trimmed or affected by agricultural chemicals.

Hedgerows are not only important for wildlife, but also for nature recovery and biodiversity. There has been a growing consensus that hedgerows are also vital to the climate in making a real, tangible contribution to reducing carbon emissions by storing carbon.

As a ‘Hedgerow Hero’, I welcome the new CPRE report (‘Hedge Fund: investing in hedgerows for climate, nature and the economy’ September 2021) which reveals how our humble hedgerows could become champions of climate action and nature recovery, while contributing thousands of jobs to local communities.

The Government has set clear targets to increase tree planting, for example, but it has not set a target for hedgerows, which are a vital tool to sequester carbon, aid nature’s recovery and even protect against flooding.

In its May 2019 report, the Climate Change Committee (CCC) advocated increasing our hedgerows by 40% by 2050, alongside other methods of carbon capture.

New research conducted by the Organic Research Centre, on behalf of CPRE, has found that the benefits of setting and achieving this target would not only be for the climate and nature, but also for employment, with 40% more hedgerows resulting in over 25,000 more jobs in hedgerow planting and maintenance in both rural and urban areas. Furthermore, research shows that for every £1 invested in hedgerow planting, as much as £3.92 is generated in the wider economy.

Our Earth has been a very giving, even forgiving planet, providing us with everything that we need to survive and thrive. But now we need to support – turbo-charge – Mother Nature’s power, and allow her to do her job to ensure our survival for future generations.

Christian Wakeford: Why we need a Cabinet Minister for Net Zero

3 Sep

Christian Wakeford is MP for Bury South.

As the MP for Bury South, in the so-called “Red Wall”, I have no doubt about the need to drive down emissions.

I am a supporter of our Conservative manifesto commitment to Net Zero by 2050, and like many of my colleagues in Parliament, my focus is on finding practical and affordable policies which will allow us to live more sustainably.

Some have recently questioned our Net Zero commitments, but poll after poll shows increasing public concern over the environment and a desire for faster action.

85 per cent of the British public are concerned about climate change, while the environment is now the third biggest priority for the public, behind healthcare and the economy, with 33 per cent saying it’s the most important issue.

In my constituency, I held a pre-COP26 “environment forum” for local people. It was a great opportunity to hear their views, concerns and hopes about our efforts to tackle climate change.

However, throughout the forum it was highlighted that government of all levels is notoriously bad at working cross department and this leads to either duplicated working or watered down and overcomplicated projects.

This will only hold back the action they want to see. The suggestion of having someone oversee action on climate change, from a cross-departmental basis, was regarded as efficient and sensible.

My constituents are right. It’s clear that we will need a senior Cabinet Minister for Net Zero to oversee this transition – ​working directly with the Prime Minister and the Chancellor. Every sector must become more sustainable – and government has a big role to play in setting the right framework.

You only have to look at the example of housing. According to Green Alliance, whose Net Zero Policy Tracker comes out this month, homes account for 16 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions in the UK and require substantial reductions. We need joined-up policy to ensure home decarbonisation is fair, whether it is on retrofitting old houses or building standards for new homes.

The Future Homes Standard, for example, should be brought forward from 2025 to ensure new homes built today are the greenest they can be. Not only will it be better for the homeowner, it will also save the Treasury and taxpayer money in the long-run, cutting out the need to subsidise expensive retrofitting down the line. A Minister for Net Zero could ensure our transition to a more sustainable economy is as quick and efficient as possible.

Currently, Alok Sharma, who is doing a brilliant job as President Designate of COP26, sits around the decision-making table as a Minister in the Cabinet Office.

This adds extra weight to the Government’s green credentials and demonstrates that we are taking our climate conference hosting responsibilities seriously. But after COP26, he could be out of a job and there is a danger that the impetus generated by hosting the UN climate change conference will be lost.

As part of our COP26 legacy, a Cabinet Minister for Net Zero can show the world how to lead cross-government action on the matter. They can also help knock heads together within government and act as both a convener and an elected spokesperson.

Not only that, they will be answerable to Parliament, providing extra scrutiny and coverage of the most pressing and challenging issue we face as we build back better from the pandemic. My constituents approve – and I hope the Government will too.

Neil Hudson: To level up rural areas, we must rewild them

2 Sep

Dr Neil Hudson is MP or Penrith and The Border, a member of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Select Committee, and a veterinary surgeon.

To succeed, the Government’s much-anticipated levelling-up strategy must recognise the geographical and ecological diversity of our great nation, and enable different areas of the country to thrive by doing what they do best.

We hear much about the potential for clean energy and manufacturing to bring jobs to our industrial heartlands, but less about the significant economic opportunity in restoring nature to our treasured national rural landscapes. To truly level up, we must restore both our natural and industrial heritage.

This week, along with fellow MPs from the North West, I am leading a delegation to visit RSPB Geltsdale Nature Reserve, a local “rewilding” site in my Cumbrian constituency, to see levelling up through nature in action.

There are huge misconceptions surrounding rewilding. Also known as wilder farming, rewilding is an approach to conservation which restores ecosystems by reinstating natural processes: putting nature back in the driving seat. In one way, it’s actually a very conservative idea – letting nature take responsibility for itself rather than intensively managing and controlling.

Through changes in land management such as blocking drains, phasing out heather burning, and replacing sheep with low-density, extensively-grazed cattle, the two hill farms at Geltsdale have restored large swathes of degraded peatland and ushered in the return of wildlife which thrive on healthy upland peat habitat, like the endangered curlew and lapwing birds.

But these measures need to be done on a case-by-case basis with local consent and consultation; it needs a sort of ‘horses for courses’ approach – the balance and type of livestock on any project need to be considered and selected sensibly and pragmatically.

While we know rewilding delivers good outcomes for wildlife and biodiversity, what has been less well-documented are the benefits for farmers, communities and the local economy. Nature underpins our economic prosperity and resilience, as outlined by the recent Dasgupta Review into the economics of biodiversity which was commissioned by Treasury ministers.

For example, healthy peat bogs act like sponges, reducing runoff into rivers and streams during periods of rainfall. This helps to reduce flooding – essential for protecting Cumbrian residents and businesses from the increasingly frequent and severe episodes of heavy rainfall and storms. It also improves water quality, so reducing treatment costs which contribute to household bills.

In this year of COP26 we have a real opportunity to lead the way in innovative environmental management as we look to protect our precious environment and combat the crisis that is climate change.

Managing land in this way is also a stimulus for jobs, with new employment opportunities in conservation and tourism alongside continued vital income from food production and livestock, like the cattle at Geltsdale which are so essential to the local ecology.

One recent study found that rewilding just five per cent of marginal land in England could create nearly 20,000 jobs in rural communities and deliver a nine-fold increase in volunteering opportunities, all while food production continues on this land. Looking after and protecting the environment while producing good quality sustainable food using high animal welfare standards very much go hand in hand.

And there are opportunities for farmers beyond core rewilding sites. The recently-published independent review of England’s food strategy, led by the entrepreneur Henry Dimbleby, envisages three broad categories of change to land management to improve food security, halt the decline of nature and tackle climate change.

In short, some farmland will sustainably intensify using technology and science to improve soil and animal health; some businesses will adopt more nature-friendly farming to combine food production with the provision of environmental goods and services; and others will undergo landscape changes such as peatland and woodland restoration. All will reward existing farmers and landowners.

The Government’s new Environmental Land Management schemes, which are replacing the EU Common Agricultural Policy, will pay farmers for the public benefits that these improvements deliver, including high animal welfare, flood mitigation, carbon sequestration and public enjoyment of nature to cleaner air and water.

The government’s £640 Nature for Climate Fund is supporting efforts in Cumbria and beyond to treble tree planting and restore 35,000 hectares of degraded peat by the end of this Parliament.

And recognising our duty to pass on the natural environment in a better state than we found it, our world-leading Environment Bill will mandate county councils to establish Local Nature Recovery Strategies, as piloted in Cumbria, and the government will set a legally-binding target to halt the decline of nature by 2030.

And the Government is determined to facilitate the return of some of the iconic British species which are integral to our natural inheritance. Last week, the government published a strategy for reintroducing wild beavers after a successful trial reintroduction on the River Otter in Devon found that the dams constructed by these natural engineers protected communities downstream from flooding and provided vibrant wetland habitats for other wildlife. In Cumbria, the return of the white-tailed eagle could help to reverse the historic decline of wildlife while also further boosting our eco-tourism sector.

The 25 Year Environment Plan recognises the significant potential of the uplands to deliver environmental improvements, creating the prospect for increased investment in nature recovery efforts in Cumbria. Already some farmers in my area are ‘re-wiggling’ rivers, re-wetting floodplains and moving to a more mixed, rotational farming system.

Many many people in Cumbria work in farming and tourism. With the right investment, Cumbria is well positioned to take advantage of this new land economy. That’s why the restoration of our natural heritage should be at the forefront of the rural levelling-up agenda.

Voters are suspicious of electric cars because politicians let them down over diesel ones. It’s not just a question of price.

18 Aug

As most people know by now, a large part of the Government’s plans for Net Zero involves convincing the nation to drive electric cars. The UK plans to ban the sale of new petrol and diesel vehicles by 2030 – so the consumer doesn’t actually have much choice in the matter.

That being said, the Government is having a number of issues selling its vision to voters around the country. None of this was helped over the last two weeks when Allegra Stratton, the spokesperson for COP26, revealed to Times Radio that she drove – shock, horror! – a third-hand diesel Volkswagen Golf.

Soon after Alok Sharma, President of COP26, was asked what he drove – to which he also answered diesel. Despite his assurance that he does not “drive it very much”, this has not impressed the electric car lobby, nor those wondering why they should buy electric if COP26’s most famous faces aren’t on board.

As COP26 draws closer, the Government will have to get better at promoting electric cars, as well as countering objections to them. The most obvious worry consumers have is the expense. Buying a car isn’t cheap, after all, so people will feel anxious about having to switch (especially when there’s been so much talk about people having to replace their gas boilers).

Then there’s the charging issue, which Stratton hit upon in her interview. She said she needed a diesel vehicle to visit elderly relatives “200, 250 miles away”… sometimes with small children in the car. “They’re all journeys that I think would be at least one quite long stop to charge”, were her words – sentiment that many people will relate to.

One underrated concern in all this is whether electric cars are another government fad, as was the case with diesel in 2001. Many will remember the “dash for diesel” in this period, during which Gordon Brown, the then Chancellor, introduced a new system of tax for petrol-powered cars, in the name of environmentalism, and slashed duty on diesel and reduced company car taxes on this type of vehicle

It led to a four-fold increase in the number of diesels, which has since been associated with thousands of premature deaths a year. Confidential Treasury files have since shown that Tony Blair’s government was aware of the damage these cars do to air quality – yet pressed ahead, mainly because the optics would look bad (through penalising diesel drivers).

At the time the files were discovered, Edmund King, president of the AA, said “This will only heighten the sense of injustice felt by millions of people who bought their diesel cars in good faith”. And it’s this sentiment that takes us back to electric cars. A lot is being asked of the consumer, so they need reassurances that electric cars are here to stay.

As James Frayne, who writes for ConservativeHome and has spent a long time researching public attitudes to Net Zero, tells me: “Cars are integral to most workers’ daily lives and they’re expensive to buy and run. People therefore really pay attention to political comment on cars and mistakes have consequences. Politicians’ u-turn on diesels is seared into the public memory and undermined confidence that Governments will see Net Zero policies through.”

So the Government needs to sell electric cars – and their longevity too. 

James Frayne: If ministers want to sell Net Zero to the public, they need to start making sacrifices

17 Aug

James Frayne is Director of Public First and author of Meet the People, a guide to moving public opinion.

This autumn’s global summit on the environment – COP26, to be held in Glasgow – will be many British voters’ first introduction to the politics of Net Zero.

When I’ve run focus groups on Net Zero, you might find one person in every three groups who has heard of it. While the environment is a tier one issue for many, the political and policy debates on Net Zero have passed the public by.

But it’s a huge issue that will define politics for two decades. COP26 therefore brings both opportunities and threats for this Conservative Government. I set out some thoughts on these here.

First, the opportunities…

1) The Government can promote green capitalism and green jobs

Boris Johnson is unusual: a centre right leader with a massive majority, who genuinely believes in the free market and protecting the environment. Rishi Sunak is similarly aligned.

As such, with the benefit of playing host, the Government has a chance to move green policy out of the hands of the left, where it has traditionally been held. The Government can chart a path to Net Zero compatible with centre-right politics: emphasising green jobs in a modernised economy and the role of technology in delivering clean growth.

This could be a distinctive role in global politics – particularly on the centre right – but could also help prevent the establishment of a policy link in the public mind between the environment and the hard left politics.

2) It offers an opportunity to do good

To date, Johnson’s Government has been defined by a few extremely divisive issues: Brexit and immigration, most obviously. This summit offers the chance to talk concretely about doing good – not just about protecting this country from the excesses of the weather, but protecting and promoting the environment globally. It also offers the first chance, post-Brexit, to work with international leaders on something positive.

3) It offers the chance to forge new alliances

Related to the above, the whole point of COP26 is to bring political leaders together. The Government has the chance to agree plans with other leaders, such as the US, that will strengthen ties in the same ways that security policy did in the past. After all, the US Democrats arguably now take climate change more seriously than foreign and defence policy. We should expect to see new alliances formed – and old alliances strengthened – over this issue.

(Covid should have facilitated global cooperation; the less said about this debacle the better).

4) Government could justify changes to the post-Covid tax system

Governments like to inject morality into the tax system. It allows them to create narratives that justify new or replacement taxes. This helps on different levels. Not only does it allow the Government to show it’s on the right side of public opinion, it provides a rationale to justify changes to the taxation system over many years.

There are fewer better opportunities than the one provided by COP26. when the Government will be able to craft a narrative that pollution should be paid for by higher taxes. When the country is struggling with massive debt post-Covid, this is a huge help. Net Zero is so large in scale, it seems likely the Government is going to have to shift to “taxing bad things to promote good” (watch out, alcoholic drinks firms).

Now, the threats…

5) There will be huge sticker shock

Successive Governments have been less than candid about the costs associated with Net Zero – both for the country as a whole and for individual families – and about lifestyle changes required. At COP26, all this will start coming out in the wash – and people are likely to be shocked about what they hear.

I have long believed the lack of any meaningful political opposition to Net Zero was a bad thing overall for the Government and the green movement: it has hidden all the negative stories that were going to come out at some point; and it has failed to get over the point that progress on Net Zero is good on balance.

Now people will hear the downsides – and it will look to many voters here that this Government’s policies are to blame. (“Why is Boris saying we need to pay more for x and y?”)

6) It will reveal huge political hypocrisy.

You can’t tell the public “we’re in a climate emergency” as you’re driving by in your diesel car. Sorry, you just can’t. As I wrote in the Sunday Telegraph, Alok Sharma, who’s leading on UK preparations for COP26, should replace his diesel car within a month, or drive it back to his new life in Reading West.

When politicians and policy experts are going to be telling us we’re in a climate emergency, and that everyone should face inconvenience and financial sacrifice, it’s imperative politicians are way ahead of the public in their own lives. It doesn’t look like most Government politicians are anywhere near. Allegations of hypocrisy will damage the Government’s green credentials, but could generally undermine trust in them too.

7) Lifestyle changes proposed will be vast, at the worst possible time

When COP26 is in full swing, the British economy will be struggling. While politicians are talking about future sacrifices, we might be hearing about the prospect of higher interest rates to curb inflation; the possibility of significant bill increases as the energy price cap moves; and about new taxes to pay off Covid debt. Talking about the need for additional green taxes will likely be met with a groan at best.

8) Many provincial towns depend on polluting industries

Derby returned a relatively rare Conservative MP at the last election (Derby North). Derby is one of the few cities in England that has kept a successful manufacturing base – making aero engines at Rolls-Royce, cars at Toyota, and trains at Bombardier. The corridor between Derby and Nottingham is full of SMEs who support these big manufacturers.

At COP26, the people of Derby will likely hear the need to radically tax flying and driving – and the businesses that make it possible. While people that live in these sorts of
towns are often realistic about the long-term prospects of manufacturing – and supportive of cleaner, greener, newer industries – at some point soon, the people of Derby will be asking some pointed questions of their MPs, just as they will across working-class seats around the country.

9) Lack of international agreement means many will ask: why bother?

As Paul wrote recently, there is at least a very good chance that emerging economies will drag their feet on environmental policy. They will likely argue that they’re still playing catch up with the developed West, and it’s not reasonable for the US, EU and UK to demand they slow their rate of growth when they’re only just establishing a mass middle class. And they have a point.

But the British public are already attuned to this problem; they know that Britain’s emissions are a relatively trivial amount of the global total. If one of their first introductions to Net Zero politics confirms their existing fears – that global progress isn’t viable, it’s possible more than a few will think “what’s the point?”

Which way will things go? How can the Government help to maximise the opportunities and mitigate the risks? I fear that the sticker shock borne of a lack of candour, coupled with stories of Ministerial inertia and hypocrisy in their private lives, will make for a difficult summit.

To give them a chance to get through this positively, the Government has got to start managing expectations fast – explaining that Net Zero is going to positive overall and on balance. This breezy assurance that it’s all going to be wonderful has got to end. And they’ve got to make sure that Government ministers can all, with a straight face, explain that they’re personally making the sacrifices they’re telling everyone else to make.

Chris Skidmore: Net Zero will mean nothing unless we can convince the highest emitting countries to change also

11 Aug

Chris Skidmore MP was Science Minister 2018-2020 and Energy Minister in 2019. He is a Senior Fellow at the Mossavar-Rahmani Center of Government at Harvard Kennedy School.

Two years have passed since the UK became the first G7 country to legislate for “Net Zero”. Since then, over 70 per cent of the world’s surface has made a commitment to neutralise their carbon emissions by 2050. Still disagreements persist as to how exactly Net Zero can be achieved, or even how it should be defined.

With the target likely to come under increasing focus in the run up to COP26 in Glasgow, now less than 100 days away, already research is demonstrating that companies’ “carbon offsetting” strategies are not only inadequate, requiring a land mass five times the size of India to plant trees, they may also end up causing more harm than good – as the carbon emitted from the wildfires burning in US forests especially planted to sequester carbon now becomes further part of the problem rather than the solution.

With these debates raging alongside this summer’s wildfires, it is clear an effective strategy to achieve Net Zero remains in a state of flux. It’s one of the reasons I’ve decided to take up a research post as a Senior Fellow at Harvard Kennedy School, looking in detail at how we can not only achieve Net Zero most effectively, but also to question whether the target is the right one, and what mitigating factors need to be put in place to account for unknowable events in the future— in the next 29 years, global change, war, natural disaster, could all sweep Net Zero off the map.

We need not only a strategy, but an insurance policy too. For every policy, policymakers must also have due regard to the fact that for every action, there will be reaction, just one of the plethora of unintended consequences that have to be guarded against. Having signed Net Zero into law as then Energy Minister back in 2019, I’m acutely aware that unless the idea of transformation and change works with local communities, the risk of a backlash to any green policies could end up causing delay and dither.

For the UK’s own Net Zero strategy, already we are witnessing the beginning of a transformation towards a green economy, with enormous potential to further regenerate post-industrial communities as a result- as has been highlighted by several contributors in ConHome’s series on Net Zero. But we all know that even if the UK achieves it’s own Net Zero ambitions, it will mean nothing unless we can convince the highest emitting countries to change also. And it will be in Asia that Net Zero will either succeed or be broken altogether.

One just has to look at the numbers to realise that without China and India onboard, the ability to tackle climate change will become a losing battle. With an estimated 70 per cent of global carbon emissions coming from cities, over 52 per cent of the world’s urban greenhouse emissions come from just 25 cities.

23 of those cities are all based inside the People’s Republic of China, with the worst being Handan, Shanghai, Suzhou, Dalian and Beijing, all with greenhouse gas emissions higher than 130 megatons of CO₂ equivalent. According to IQAir, a Swiss-based air quality organisation which works with the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), UN-Habitat, and Greenpeace, 148 out of the top 150 most polluted cities in 2020 are in Asia.

Alok Shama is rightly using his position as COP26 President to call for a global end to coal, yet Chinese and Indian buy-in to this programme will be essential for its success. While pledging in 2016 during the Paris Agreement to reach peach CO₂ emissions by 2030, China built more coal power plants in 2020 than the entire world retired.

Already China has nearly four times as many coal power plants than the next largest country, India. In 2020 alone, China’s coal usage accounted for 76 per cent of the global new coal capacity, adding 38.4 gigawatts directly from new coal plants. Moving forward China is currently building an additional 88.1 gigawatts of power from coal, with another 158.7 gigawatts of power from coal power plants having already been proposed to the central government.

These are the simple facts that anyone who wishes to reduce global carbon emissions faces. The geopolitical reality facing any Net Zero strategy is that China’s growth will continue to define the 21st century. There is no choice but to work together with China to achieve joint successful outcomes to reduce carbon emissions.

Playing the blame game on carbon emissions is ultimately pointless as it achieves nothing. It is not a weakness either to recognise that we all have a shared future on the earth, and we must build partnerships that share how we can deliver transformations that can prevent drastic climate change before it is too late.

If China fails to reduce its greenhouse gases, we all fail. If ever there was a need for a “Nixon in China” moment, we need COP26 to deliver it if Net Zero has any chance of success.

Emily Carver: If the public face of COP26 won’t buy an electric car, don’t expect the public to be on board with Net Zero

4 Aug

Emily Carver is Media Manager at the Institute of Economic Affairs

The Government’s Net Zero strategy is unravelling from the inside out. Last week, it was reported that the Prime Minister – who seems increasingly to be governing by U-turn – may push back the ban on gas boilers, due to growing backlash over the cost of reducing our emissions.

This week, Number 10’s climate change spokesperson Allegra Stratton said she didn’t “fancy” buying an electric car, and would continue driving her diesel, only days after having called on the public to go “One Step Greener” by, among other “micro-steps”, walking to the shops instead of driving.

This is just a snapshot of the inconsistency of the Government’s green messaging. Why should a household invest in green technology, only for the policy to be reversed or delayed? Who would bother scrapping their diesel or petrol vehicle, when the public face of COP26 has decided herself not to go electric?

Of course, when polled, the majority of the public support addressing climate change. Who wouldn’t want a greener, more sustainable planet? However, as is the case with so many policies, it is far easier to support a rosy abstract goal than it is to face its real-life consequences.

The green agenda is no doubt important – not least for our own quality of life – but, as many have warned, arbitrary targets set by ministers lead to poor – and often frenzied – policies. Fundamentally, the plans rely on the false assumption that ministers and bureaucrats are best placed to pick winners when it comes to technology and the future of energy. Successive governments have shown this manifestly not to be the case.

Further, the idea that we must reach “Net Zero” is in itself a misguided aim, lending itself to an “at all costs” strategy, much like those who back a “Zero-Covid” strategy. This is what has led to an over-reliance on heavy-handed prohibitions – such as the ban on sales of petrol and diesel cars – rather than the use of price incentives.

For politicians, there is little in the way of accountability. Setting a target for three decades in the future is illusory, lending itself to virtue-signalling and ill-thought-out measures. Fundamentally, it overestimates the Government’s ability to plan ahead. Who could possibly believe that officials would be able to predict the state of the energy sector in three decades? It would be far preferable for the Government to set a price for carbon, adopt a technology-neutral approach, and allow technologies to compete.

It is concerning that ministers continue to use the language of “crisis” and “emergency” when discussing climate change. As we’ve seen over the course of the pandemic, this kind of rhetoric has been deployed when justifying government by decree, lockdown measures and prohibitions. Could it be that the same could be used on the basis that we face a climate emergency? Perhaps the lunatic idea that we might lockdown to protect the planet isn’t as farfetched as it sounds.

However, as the costs of Net Zero become more widely known, it is likely that those who have up till now acquiesced with the Government’s plans will begin to make their voices heard – particularly at a time when inflation and tax hikes are on the horizon. Even the broadcast media, which has been overwhelmingly supportive of Net Zero, is beginning to raise questions about – and publicise – the cost of the Government’s proposals.

This month, the Office for Budget Responsibility has estimated the total cost of reaching Net Zero by 2050 could reach £1.4 trillion. Lord Lawson has predicted the true cost could be twice this. The Government’s infrastructure adviser has said that families will have to pay up to £400 more a year for food, gods and travel to allow polluting industries to capture their carbon emissions. It is likely that this will also be an underestimation.

It is often argued that despite the fact Britain accounts for a tiny proportion of the world’s carbon emissions we must set an example for other countries to follow. Sure, this may be admirable – and we should do so to some extent – but when China and India are industrialising at the rate of knots, expanding their coalmine capacity year on year, it becomes harder to defend the Government’s arbitrary targets. If the aim is to drive down global temperatures, our efforts will appear to an increasing number of people as little more than an act of economic self-harm.

It has been argued that the Government should be honest about the costs of Net Zero and the impact it will have on our lives. As the media catches on, politicians and the green lobby can no longer shield the truth from the public. People are unlikely to take kindly to a dramatic, government-imposed reduction in their living standards and hikes to their cost of living. Any Net Zero policy that doesn’t command the support of the public is doomed to failure.

Should the Prime Minister put his COP26 spokesperson in the House of Lords?

3 Aug

Last month, the Commission for Smart Government attracted controversy when it proposed that the Prime Minister ought to be able to appoint ministers from outside Parliament. The Independent reported it thus:

“Describing its reforms as “radical”, the commission suggests giving prime ministers the ability to appoint ministers who are not parliamentarians, “to allow additional talent to be brought in from outside government”. Attempting to tackle inevitable questions of accountability to parliament, the report suggests the creation of oral committees that can summon the ministers who are not MPs or peers to appear.”

Might Boris Johnson have some sympathy with this proposal? He does seem to be developing a habit of giving wide-ranging political briefs to people who are not ministers.

Lord Frost may have been elevated before he was put in control of salvaging the Government’s position in Northern Ireland, but it was as David Frost that he delivered his speech, ‘Reflections on the revolutions in Europe‘, making a wide-ranging and political case for what Brexit meant.

Now we have Allegra Stratton, the Prime Minister’s spokesperson for COP26, attracting controversy with advice on rinsing dishes, criticising the official Net Zero target, and her preference for diesel cars over electric.

These are not unreasonable positions. But it nonetheless seems strange that a mere spokesperson is publishing articles urging voters to go ‘one step greener’ under her own name, rather than the Prime Minister’s. Indeed, it very much reads in the tone of a ministerial piece.

Perhaps it is not surprising that the role is an ill-defined one. After all, it was only conjured to find a position for Stratton after Boris Johnson rightly abandoned plans to introduce US-style televised press briefings.

But if the Prime Minister wishes Stratton to have a proper political role, then he should elevate her to the peerage as he did Frost. Contra the Commission for Smart Government, it is precisely one of the roles of the House of Lords to “allow additional talent to be brought in from outside government” – whilst remaining properly accountable to the legislature.