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Cop28 should prompt a net zero rethink

Cop28 in Dubai
Cop28 in Dubai

There is no doubt that divine providence has a sense of humour. As our King and Prime Minister joined tens of thousands of eco-warriors at Cop28, in Dubai, to decry (and contribute to) the threat of carbon emissions warming the planet, Alpine ski slopes were covered in pre-seasonal snow and Britain has had its earliest snowfall in 15 years.

It reminded me of the night, 15 years ago, when Parliament passed the Climate Change Act amid terrifying predictions of catastrophic heatwaves. Then, too, providence teased us as, outside Parliament, snow fell in London in October for the first time in 74 years.

I was one of the “Infamous Five” who voted against that Act. Not because I doubted the science – I studied physics at Cambridge and know the basic science of global warming is rock solid. An exceptional cold-weather event no more disproves global warming than fires in Greece prove it is getting worse. Incidentally, Nasa satellites show that the area burnt annually by forest fires has declined by 25 per cent since they started collecting data.

But I had read the Impact Assessment – the cost-benefit analysis – which governments must produce for any Bill. Officials said I was the only MP to ask for a copy. It showed that the potential cost was twice the maximum benefit. Unless you disputed the accuracy of the Impact Assessment (which no one did), no rational person could vote for the Act. But, then and since, our political class has put reason aside, preferring to use this issue for virtue signalling. Why bother about costs which in 2008 were far in the future?

Now, those costs are imminent, as people face replacing oil and gas boilers with more expensive heat pumps, and diesel and petrol cars with more expensive electric cars. This prompted Rishi Sunak, very sensibly, to promise a more pragmatic and proportional route to net zero.

Of course, if it were true that any delay would risk the extinction of humanity – as implied by the very name Extinction Rebellion, and claims by our leaders that climate change is “an existential threat”– no cost would be too great to avoid such a fate.

So, I asked ministers if they know of any peer-reviewed study accepted by the IPCC (the UN body established to assess the science of global warming) that forecasts the extinction of humanity if the world takes no action to phase out fossil fuels. The answer was clear: there are none.

Nor is there a serious threat of humankind being reduced to poverty, hunger and wretchedness if we don’t reduce our reliance on fossil fuels. The central conclusion of Lord Stern’s official review of the economics of climate change was that if the world does nothing – not if we do not do enough, but if we do nothing – it would be equivalent to making us all 5 per cent poorer than we would otherwise be, now and forever. But a 5 per cent loss does not remotely amount to impoverishment of the human race, just setting us back by two or three years’ growth.

More recently, Prof Nordhaus, who won the Nobel Prize in 2018 for assessing the costs and benefits of action on climate change, concluded that the optimum target for the world to aim for is not 1.5C above pre-industrial levels, but nearer to 3C, which means there may be scope to delay our net zero target beyond 2050.

If a Nobel Prize is not enough and you want the imprimatur of the IPCC, these are the opening words of its chapter on the impact of climate change on the economy: “For most economic sectors, the impact of climate change will be small relative to the impacts of other drivers. Changes in population, age, income, technology, relative prices, lifestyle, regulation, governance, and many other aspects of socio-economic development will have an impact on the supply and demand of economic goods and services that is large relative to the impact of climate change.”

As a Conservative, I want to prevent avoidable change – even if it is not catastrophic – so long as this can be done at reasonable cost. But we should weigh the cost of actions to reduce emissions against the cost of inaction. And we should harness the power of the market to develop lower-cost alternatives to fossil fuels for heating, transport and so on before forcing people to adopt new technologies whose cost has not yet come down to those based on conventional fuels. I fear, hoewver, that will not be the approach of this conference.


Lord Lilley is a former trade and industry secretary

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