THERE has been a huge outcry from the green lobby over Rishi Sunak’s apparent climbdown regarding the UK’s Net Zero targets. But should the climate change believers really be concerned that the UK Government is about to do a U-turn on its more recent – and more draconian – environmental pledges? And should the climate change sceptics rest on their laurels with this news? With the public resistance to ULEZ, the economic implications for homeowners around the incoming Energy Bill, and government plans to scrap petrol and diesel cars, is this just political sleight of hand from a government that has not only seen its credibility fall through the floor over the last three years, but has also been handing over its sovereignty to supranational institutions which are fast-tracking their own agendas on environment and health care?
In 2021, the UK government released details of radical new climate targets to reduce the UK’s carbon emission by 78 per cent by 2035. The impetus for this renewed approach, came from the ‘independent’ Climate Change Committee, acting uncritically on that year’s sixth Assessment Report from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The main areas in this renewed environmental push included:
· the phasing out of petrol and diesel vehicles by 2030;
· the UK to be powered entirely by clean electricity by 2035;
· investment in hydrogen production;
· cash to ‘upgrade’ home heating systems from gas boilers to heat pumps.
Other yet-to-be ironed out issues included radically proposed changes in cattle farming and meat production, tripling the creation of woodland areas, and the incorporation of aviation and shipping into the policy framework. With every weather abnormality seemingly being linked to man-made climate change, the more recent political push behind this has dwarfed previous narratives.
Since the Rio Earth Summit in 1992, climate change has been a hot potato for the UK government, underlined by 30 years of inconsistent, intermittent and largely ineffectual policies – Feed-in Tariff, Green Deal, Renewable Heat Incentive – even if you were to buy the story that was being sold. Most of these policies and their associated lifespans and effectiveness reflected both a lack of conviction (and arguably political belief in the problem itself) and a fear of upsetting a largely sceptical public. Prior to 2020, climate change was ‘the elephant in the room’ that mainstream parties were reluctant to tackle in any meaningful sense. The social, political, and economic challenges of the ‘energy nexus’ (Kuzemko, 2013) – resolving the clear conflicts between energy security, fuel poverty and environmental objectives – has always meant trade-offs. The power restrictions in the 1970s are a permanent reminder to governments of what would happen if the nation’s power supply was shut off or curtailed. Therefore ensuring a continuous energy supply is prioritised by politicians when push comes to shove. The implications have always been clear: replacing tried and trusted hardware with localised, pricier and more intermittent technologies carries huge political and economic risks.
After Rio, things began promisingly for the UK government in a world where climate change was being pushed on to the political stage by those whose interests it would serve. In 1997, the Blair government signed up to the Kyoto Protocol, largely on the back of ‘windfall emission’ reductions – the result of electricity privatisation and the switch from coal to (much cheaper and less unionised) gas. Electricity privatisation under the previous Conservative Government in effect halved the UK’s emissions from this sector, as much as a 15 per cent overall drop in the UK’s carbon profile according to some estimates. As a nation rejoiced after 18 years of Tory rule, Tony Blair saw this as the ideal opportunity to virtue signal to the world by championing New Labour’s environmental credibility on the international stage. The party’s commitment on ‘climate justice’ culminated in the world’s first Climate Change Act in 2008, the stated aim of which was to co-ordinate and oversee the reduction of carbon emissions from three main sectors: energy, transport, and households (Fudge et al. 2011).
On the back of this the New Labour government had originally been confident enough to set a target of reducing UK carbon emissions by 60 per cent by 2050 in the 2003 White Paper Our Energy Future: Creating a Low Carbon Economy. These ambitions were taken to task by the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution, which pointed out that not only were carbon emissions continuing to rise when measured on a per capita basis, but that energy demand and consumer-facing policies should be the principal focus if the government were to be serious about mitigating climate change. Therefore, there was now an uneasy realisation that overhauling the UK’s energy system would necessarily involve a ‘step-shift’ in the beliefs, values and ideals that characterise the habits and practices of energy users. Subsequently, media and TV information campaigns on becoming ‘environmentally responsible’ joined congestion charging schemes, changes to vehicle taxation, green subsidies to homeowners, and incentives for solar and renewable heat.
Encouraging ‘behavioural change’ also signposted some of the challenges faced by policy-makers when trying to engage more directly with citizens on specific policy outcomes – particularly something where the science wasn’t proven and would mean radical lifestyle changes for a mostly sceptical public. This public apathy and scepticism could be observed, for example, in the disastrous Green Deal, an economic incentive to encourage homeowners to make their homes more energy-efficient. The take-up of this was so low that it was scrapped after 18 months. The widespread opposition to wind farms has also indicated that many of the public are not going to be so easily persuaded on a green transition. This has been the perennial problem for successive governments: selling the public on giving up or severely curtailing the use of cheap available fossil fuels, the very things that have driven economic growth and associated lifestyles, in order to ‘save the planet’. It is interesting that the more recent push on climate change has seen a ramping up of the fear factor and absurd soundbites such as ‘global boiling’ to scare the public into acceptance.
Perhaps the biggest difference to the UK government’s current and latest climate change agenda won’t be what Rishi Sunak does or doesn’t commit to or backtrack on in relation to targets and policies, but will be the more ‘under the radar’ supranational influence of the UN. This influence is always in the background, gaining in significance all the time. While the UK has been a signatory of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) since 1994, this arrangement has historically been driven primarily by national governments – until now. In 2019, a UN Strategic Partnership Framework was signed with the World Economic Forum, locking member states further into much more rigorous benchmarking and monitoring of the UN’s Agenda 2030 goals. While national governments may have been reluctant to engage directly with the electorate on the more uncomfortable realities of Net Zero – threats to future mobility, warmth and convenience – more direct UN intervention would not be compromised by such issues. In a similar way to the proposed WHO treaty which will presumably give the UN direct control over the nation’s health, our governments have snubbed their own citizens and seemingly colluded behind the backs of the people who voted them into power. There is an unspoken but very clear message underneath all this: national governments and their citizens are not to be trusted and the only people who can decide what problems are the world faces – alongside their solutions – are an unelected group of technocrats and their rich elite paymasters. We have thus been prepared for an uncertain and frightening future which is aligned very specifically to Agenda 30. We have already been given a glimpse of what might be in store with the passing of the Energy Bill, which will make homeowners legally responsible for the energy efficiency standards of their homes. Likewise, ULEZ and the impending rollout of ‘15-minute cities’ have WEF/UN fingerprints all over them. As for Rishi Sunak’s apparent ‘about turn’ on Net Zero, have no doubt: whichever party is in power, climate change legislation will continue be ramped up, and will continue to transcend national government remit, democracy and party politics, down a road that has already been decided by a small group of people we have no reason to trust any more than our own inept government.