Britain’s prime minister, Rishi Sunak, was denounced before he’d uttered a word on net zero ahead of his short remarks on Wednesday.
Lord Deben, the recently departed chair of the statutory Climate Change Committee, took to the airwaves to accuse the government of stupidity. Lord Zac Goldsmith, son of the billionaire Sir James Goldsmith, who resigned from the government earlier this summer, said the prime minister had no mandate to change any net zero commitments and should call an immediate election.
As it turned out, Sunak’s remarks did not substantively change very much. “I’m absolutely committed to reaching Net Zero by 2050,” the prime minister insisted. True, the prime minister pledged that the government wouldn’t force families to rip out their gas-fired boilers and replace them with expensive heat pumps. And, he announced that the ban on sales of petrol and diesel cars would be pushed back to 2035, which former prime minister Boris Johnson had brought forward to 2030 in one of his periodic fits of climate jingoism. What Sunak didn’t say was whether the rising quota of electric vehicle (EV) mandates squeezing out sales of conventional vehicles would remain in place.
This, though, would be to miss what the prime minister had done: politically, everything has changed. “No one in politics has had the courage to look people in the eye and explain what that involves,” Sunak said of net zero. “That’s wrong – and it changes now.” He promised that his approach to net zero would be pragmatic, proportionate, and realistic.
Of course, net zero by 2050 is none of those things. It is ideological, disproportionate, and unachievable. So why the vehemence of the climate lobby’s attacks on Sunak? In their eyes, Sunak has committed the worst crime of all: he has broken the net zero omertà, which enforces a pact of silence on discussing the policy’s true costs. In public, net zero should only be spoken of as the growth opportunity of the century, something that’s good for the economy as well as the planet. That it might inflict cost and hardship must never be said.
Sunak has destroyed this silent agreement. He has made it possible for mainstream political discourse to mention possible downsides to net zero. In this respect, he’s been assisted by his opponent’s reaction. Labor could have closed the issue down by saying it would be counter-productive to bring forward the ban. Instead, Labor leader Sir Keir Starmer immediately pledged to reverse Sunak’s reversal of the 2030 ban on selling new petrol and diesel cars. With EV sale mandates still in place, there is very little before and after difference – except Sir Keir now owns the downsides of the net zero anti-car policy.
Commentary on EVs focuses on the user experience – the vehicles’ cost premium, for example, or problems such as range anxiety and the inconvenience of re-charging them compared to filling up with a tank of fuel. These issues make EVs either a luxury purchase for individuals or a tax-efficient purchase made by businesses on behalf of their employees. There’s been much less focus on the implications for the electrical grid of mass EV adoption. As Manhattan Institute senior fellow Mark Mills discusses in a recent paper, “Electric Vehicles for Everyone? The Impossible Dream,” transitioning automotive energy derived from molecules to electrons has enormous implications for the grid and local distribution networks.
It’s not solely about the relative costs of electricity versus liquid hydrocarbons. (Electricity is much more expensive before taxes, a net zero fiscal hole Labor also needs to address.) According to Mills, transporting a unit of electrical energy using wires and transformers is about 20-fold more expensive than transporting the same quantity of energy as oil in pipelines and tankers. When you fill up your tank with gasoline, the same amount of energy per second is going into your car as being generated by four 5-megawatt wind turbines. The electrical grid and local distribution networks are simply not designed to accommodate the enormous increase in electrical power required for mass EV adoption – and the faster the EV charger, the more power it needs.
Upgrading Britain’s electrical network for EVs will cost many tens of billions of pounds. Who pays? That’s now a question for Sir Keir and Labor to answer. Will electrical utilities discriminate between electricity used to charge an EV and boil a kettle? Some 55% of British households don’t own a car. Does Labor expect the 55% of non-car owners to subsidize the cost of grid and local network upgrades for the benefit of the small proportion of the 45% of car owners who have EVs? Labor’s green socialism inverts traditional socialism. It envisions less well-off community members subsidizing better-off EV owners through their electricity bills.
The prime minister can have had few illusions about the consequences of breaking with the climate consensus to speak of costs and downsides. The climate lobby is well-funded and deeply networked throughout politics and the media. It required courage and conviction for Sunak to have taken this step. Thanks to him, Britain’s climate policy debate will never be the same.
This article originally appeared at Real Clear Energy