Amidst the politicking that inevitably surrounds any leadership race, a handful of Conservative MPs have demanded a review of our commitment to achieve net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.
These calls betray a fundamental misunderstanding of the wider benefits of decarbonisation to UK interests and the global momentum towards net zero. More than 130 countries now have net zero targets, covering 91 per cent of global GDP. They are joined by 115 state and regional governments, 235 cities and more than one-third of the world’s biggest publicly traded companies.
Britain was among the early adopters and is reaping the benefits through private sector investment in areas such as renewable energy and battery storage. Energy bills, sent skyrocketing by the Kremlin’s invasion of Ukraine, are lower than they would otherwise be thanks to renewables and energy efficiency, and more renewables investment will bring bills down further. Electric cars will be a game-changer for air quality, as well as providing cheaper motoring and reducing reliance on Russian oil.
Unsurprisingly, the UK public cares. Recent polling shows that deserting our net zero target could cost the Conservatives 1.3 million votes — with 46 per cent of respondents saying they would be less likely to vote for a party that scrapped net zero. In the mayoral elections at Tees Valley, Ben Houchen, who placed net zero jobs at the heart of his re-election campaign, saw his share of the vote rise from 52 per cent to 73 per cent.
With Britain and the rest of Europe sweltering in new extremes of heat, climate change has forced its way into the Conservative leadership process in the most dramatic way possible. Wildfires are devastating countries just half a continent away, in France and Spain. Climate change is reducing crop yields and the productivity of fisheries and the security of fresh water supplies. All of these have economic as well as social consequences.
So while reaching net zero has a big cost, this is absolutely dwarfed by the cost of not doing so. It is equally clear that keeping the cost of achieving it as low as possible entails having a clear plan, to provide investors with certainty and stimulate healthy competition to provide the goods and services needed. In mid July, for example, the UK’s largest ever renewables auction locked in 7GW of clean power for 12 million homes by 2026 — at a cost of £45 per megawatt hour, a quarter of the current price for gas power.
The value of a clear, evidence-based roadmap is being appreciated more broadly, according to the most recent analysis from the Net Zero Tracker consortium. Over the last 18 months, the number of cities with net zero targets has doubled; the number of states and regions with targets rose by over 50 per cent. One-third of the world’s biggest publicly traded companies now have net zero targets, up from one-fifth at the end of 2020. More and more of these entities are also introducing plans and timetables to ensure the targets are delivered.
Even without Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, net zero would clearly be the logical path for the UK economy. As former Conservative MP Laura Sandys observed last month, the advantages of building out wind, solar, electric vehicles and battery storage are so clear, and the appetite of private capital so big, that moving towards net zero is simply a logical policy for the 21st century. Putin’s aggression has made it the must-have for geopolitical reasons as well – because the cost of not achieving net zero is continued reliance on international markets for energy.
So, even though Conservative leadership candidates might want to focus elsewhere to please specific wings of their party, there is no case in economics, business or politics for the UK squandering its leadership of the race to clean energy. For energy security, low bills, jobs and “Global Britain,” net zero is the only game in town.