The politics of net zero could ultimately amount to zero
As the next general election approaches in the UK, there appears to be a renewed effort by the ruling Conservative Party to spin climate issues for electoral gains, since it has been smelling potential defeat. Yes, who could blame Prime Minister Rishi Sunak for resorting to all the tricks in the trade to get a chance of victory? After all, that is what politicians do best, and maybe his recent U-turns mean his party’s, government’s and nation’s green pledges are being sacrificed in return for a few votes or maybe more.
Sunak last week said that the British government’s self-imposed 2030 deadline for banning the sale of new petrol and diesel vehicles would be pushed back to 2035, while the migration to cleaner, more ecologically friendly domestic heating systems would not be fully enforced until 2035, rather than 2026. These are just two steps that show how the UK government is, for electioneering purposes, rowing back on the emissions targets set in the wake of the Paris climate agreement of 2015. Sunak has not said how he plans to offset these changes if Britain plans to keep its green transition pledges alive and be able to meet its 2050 net-zero target.
Sunak’s announcement was apparently made in the name of helping the people, and in the interest of voters, as the economic crunch felt by UK households due to the cost-of-living crisis apparently pushed him to make this grave and serious U-turn. This is of course in the hope that Britain will later double down on its efforts to meet its climate obligations.
However, it comes when the natural world is offering little comfort, with record-breaking temperatures in the summer accompanied by wildfires and droughts, shrinking rivers and higher pollution, depending on where in the world you look. To these blows, we could add the loss of Antarctic ice five times the size of the UK, rising sea water temperatures and a generally hotter atmosphere, which are scary to any reasonably minded individual, let alone climate scientists.
The UK government is, for electioneering purposes, rowing back on the emissions targets set in the wake of the Paris climate agreement
Many believe that Sunak’s U-turn on environmental policies was the result of pressures that are also affecting leaders across the world, but specially in the Western democracies. Politicians everywhere have, for years it seems, embraced a half-truth about climate change, claiming that the road to net zero would be beneficial to the people by generating economic growth, boosting the coffers of the state and offering green jobs for the unemployed. No one wanted to factor in the true costs of the transition, such as the behavioral sacrifices needed. Nor did they factor in the huge costs or technological limitations, with many still hopeful that new fuels, new batteries, cleaner energy and factories that suck in methane and pollutants all have a large role to play in mitigating the emissions produced.
For the majority of people, the transition to net zero seemingly remains a broad aspiration on paper only. In reality, it might be a source of trouble for sitting governments, as we saw in France in 2018, when a new green fuel duty triggered the so-called Yellow Vest protests. In Germany, the far-right Alternative for Germany is likely to capitalize electorally if Berlin goes ahead and bans the installation of new gas and oil boilers in favor of cleaner heat pumps, with the party having denounced the “green fascism” of the ruling elite. In the US, climate deniers are very vocal and the populist right has never hidden its dismay regarding net zero.
In the poorer Global South, the narrative is slightly different but still usually leads to the same skepticism and is hooked on either waiting for the rich world to pay for the transition or simply defending idleness on climate issues. Instead, people in poorer countries claim they are more troubled about how to feed their kids until the end of the week and are far from caring about how to prevent the end of the world.
No one wanted to factor in the true costs of the green transition, such as the behavioral sacrifices needed
What is alarming for Britons is that climate change might well be weaponized by Conservative Party politicians who are desperate to hang on to power against all odds. Looking at the “honest” endeavor by PM Sunak to protect the people and their near-empty purses, the party’s machinery is now hard at work seemingly trying to mislead the public. Britons should prepare for what looks set to be more disinformation campaigns that will be a reminder of those that circulated before the Brexit referendum in 2016.
Emails sent to journalists from the Conservative Campaign Headquarters have revealed the lines of attacks to be used during the next election campaign. These range from attacks on the Climate Change Committee to the opposition Labour Party’s pledged £28 billion ($34 billion) investment in a low-carbon economy. These are in addition to last week’s false claims by Sunak that he is determined to scrap nonexistent taxes on meat and flying, compulsory car-sharing and the imposition on households of seven different rubbish and recycling bins.
Such misleading lines of attack obviously point to a desperate party trying to cling to power at all costs. But they also point to the fact that net zero and saving the environment, which had the backing of politicians across the British political spectrum, could become a divisive electoral issue, turning climate change into a political football. This risks sacrificing the UK’s green transition and rendering it a poisonous and toxic subject, potentially derailing the years of effort that made the net-zero pursuit a noble cornerstone of policymaking, investment and the economy.
In doing so, Britain will finally join many other nations from the richer Global North and the poorer Global South that are skeptical about the climate crisis, driven solely by a refusal to be transparent with the public about the human and financial costs that will surely be associated with the green transition.
- Mohamed Chebaro is a British-Lebanese journalist, media consultant and trainer with more than 25 years of experience covering war, terrorism, defense, current affairs and diplomacy.