Response to UK Govt consultation “Review of Net Zero: call for evidence”
“The review will consider how our approach to net zero can:
The review will assess the economic co-benefits associated with different policies and how we can drive down the cost curve for net zero technologies. It will consider innovative approaches and ways of delivering our target that ensure the government maximises the economic opportunities presented by net zero.”
I've not prepared answers for all questions. Here are the ones I have started to answer.
1) How does net zero enable us to meet our economic growth target of 2.5% a year?
The UK’s Net Zero by 2050 commitment is an essential part of starting to collectively address the need to:
a) reduce our net GHG emissions to zero , in both our direct emitting activities (“territorial emissions”) and the emissions caused by our consumption of goods and services for which GHG emissions have occurred in other countries (“consumption emissions”) and
b) atone for the cumulative GHG emissions our country has already caused, historically to date.
The UK economic growth target of 2.5% a year might or might not be compatible with achieving Net Zero by 2050. I would argue that the economic growth target, in terms of GDP, is both secondary to achieving Net Zero by 2050, and is also a flawed target.
GDP growth is a secondary level target, because without a properly functioning, sustainable planet and healthy, biodiverse ecosystems in 2050 (which is very much in doubt currently, given the impacts of existing and already baked-in AGW and potential tipping points it might reach before 2050) there would be no properly functioning economy to sustain us all, let alone to grow.
GDP is a flawed measure of economic success. There are many academic texts about this. Especially in highly developed countries (such as the UK) increasing the GDP further does not necessarily equal a better, healthier or more sustainable, or more just economy or society. A transition to a post-GDP financial, economic and social success measurement system will be required, and that will be no less significant, challenging or beneficial than the transition to a Net Zero economy.
2) What challenges and obstacles have you identified to decarbonisation?
3) What opportunities are there for new/amended measures to stimulate or facilitate the transition to net zero in a way that is pro-growth and/or pro-business?
The expression “pro-growth and/or pro-business” in this question is misguided and demonstrates a certain degree of tunnel vision in the phrasing of this consultation with an over-emphasis on only a small part of what makes a country and society successful, healthy and happy. When looked at through a lens of sustainability and social justice, the transition to Net Zero needs to be done with the intention to create the maximum wellbeing for the maximum number of people (not maximum GDP – see my answer to question 1), and to do so not just for the UK but in partnership with all peoples in all countries of the world. In an interdependent world, we all depend on the global commons, and the UK cannot insulate itself from the actions by, and responsibilities towards, its neighbours, brothers and sisters in other countries, especially those who emitted fewer GHG emissions, are more impacted by AGW than citizens of the UK, and have less ability and support to adapt to, or cope with, its consequences.
Growth is not an end in itself, and some types of growth can be counter-productive when looked at through a sustainability and social justice lens.
‘Green growth’, or ’just and sustainable growth’ are better expressions to use and form the basis of more morally defensible ambitions, objectives and plans. Also, the Government should be considering ‘post growth’, ‘degrowth’ and steady state economics principles and practices. This is not so that Government can replace one dominant dogma with another one, but it is rather about realising that the type of growth that has dominated the post-WW2 developed countries is not sustainable in the long-term, because it has contributed significantly to breaching several planetary boundaries (as per Rockstrom, Raworth, Steffen etc).
While some work on decoupling UK GDP growth from environmental impacts (including GHG emissions) has been encouraging in recent years, it’s by no means certain, or even probable, that such decoupling will continue at similar pace or that it will be sufficient to avert serious unsustainability outcomes, including AGW-driven climate changes, and that’s before considering the possibilities of passing through trigger points that accelerate a switch to a very different equilibrium climate globally.
Environmental footprint taxes (which could work like VAT):
One measure that can help an economically optimal pathway to sustainability in general and to Net Zero in particular is to use Government regulations and taxation to price in the environmental externalities into all product and service pricing. The specific measure for pricing in GHG emissions is effective carbon pricing.
The more general measure for economically optimal pathways to more general sustainability is to price in an environmental footprint tax into all products and services, throughout the entire supply chain. This could work in a similar way to VAT. However, where VAT ends at the point of consumption by an ‘end user’, an environmental footprint tax could also be part of a product or service life cycle that includes circular economy principles. For example, a consumer could get an environmental footprint tax ‘credit’ when they pass used goods on to a recycling organisation and so on. The total tax on a whole closed life cycle would be the tax on only the actual “consumed” energy, materials etc that were used up. With a high recycling content product, the tax would be minimal. With a low recycling content product, the tax would be significant. The differential between these two types of product would strongly incentivise the entire supply chain to switch from high environmental impact products to low environmental impact ones. An environmental footprint tax could even replace VAT, thereby limiting the challenges of transition and implementation.
I’ve written more extensively about the concept of an environmental footprint tax in my website and blog at www.PlanetaryCFO.com.
and see the item titled “Eco Taxes” at:
4) What more could government do to support businesses, consumers and other actors to decarbonise?
Environmental footprint taxes in general, and carbon taxes/pricing in particular, could be implemented in ways that are financially neutral for the poorest and most vulnerable citizens. (see also my answer to 3 above). This could be done by adjusting welfare and other social security / tax measures and rates alongside the introduction / tapering up of the environmental taxes to ensure the financially disadvantaged are no worse off afterwards than they were before. The changes could even be done in a progressive way, to reduce the existing grossly disturbing financial and social inequalities that currently exist in the UK, let alone in the rest of the world.
5) Where and in what areas of policy focus could net zero be achieved in a more economically efficient manner?
See my answers to questions 1, 3 and 4.
6) How should we balance our priorities to maintaining energy security with our commitments to delivering net zero by 2050?
This is really a very technical matter, so I’d recommend taking expert advice from many different parties with relevant skills, knowledge and research materials. However, the expression “Ensure that the perfect is not the enemy of the good” comes to mind. The Net Zero transition has already started. The UK Climate Change Committee, and other credible bodies, must be supported and enabled to continue to hold government to account on its performance in achieving the Net Zero transition in a just and sustainable way, not just an economically optimal one. Don’t delay the Net Zero transition in the name of getting to a “perfect” solution. Build a “good enough” solution as you go, and the people will ultimately thank you for getting on with it. Delay defeats the innovators, rewards the incumbents and risks breaching of tipping points and overshooting planetary boundaries even further, with potentially even more extreme and unpredictable outcomes than scientists are already very concerned about.
This is a very good (ten min) video that puts across very well a risk-based approach and the reasons why a precautionary principle is a sensible one to apply at this point:
7. What export opportunities does the transition to net zero present for the UK economy or UK businesses?
If we can build sufficient capacity of renewable energy generation (eg including overcapacity), then low carbon or zero carbon energy can be exported to other countries at times they might have need of it, eg via interconnectors.
Questions for the public
18) Have you or are you planning to take personal action to reduce your carbon emissions (for example through how you travel, what you buy, how you heat your home)? If so, how?
The fossil fuel industry has included in its disinformation campaigns attempts to shift blame for AGW away from themselves onto “the consumer”. Those campaigns have tainted many genuine efforts to change consumer behaviours, by making many people cynical about such efforts.
The government should act more diligently to address disinformation which risks delaying or disrupting efforts to manage demand for, and decarbonise the supply of, goods and services with significant environmental impacts.
Despite the above, I have personally been, over many years, more conscious of including environmental impacts (including AGW) of all my major life choices, from where I live, to what sort of property I live in, to where I travel (and how I travel), to what I eat, to what I wear etc.
Environmental footprint calculators I’ve used show, however, that even if I make the most sustainable, low-carbon choices, there is still a remaining unacceptably high environmental footprint for a typical citizen in the UK, which I have called “structural unsustainability”, and it is this unsustainability that is the realm of governments and businesses to address for the benefit of all citizens and the rest of the world.
20) What would help you to make greener choices?
Clear eco-footprint labelling (similar to key ingredients labelling, for salt, sugar, calories etc)
(see Mike Berners Lee’s “How bad are bananas?" for inspiration and simple calculation methods)
22) What is not working well about the measures being put in place to reach net zero?
The low-hanging fruit has already been picked, to some extent (eg wind energy, some electrification of transport). Transition to Electric Vehicles is somewhat stumbling along, with charging infrastructure being an obvious challenge, but at least there is a general sense of direction (excuse the pun) and an end-goal in sight for the end of sales of ICE vehicles. Decarbonising heat (eg in industrial and domestic settings) is well behind where it should be, with various false starts on domestic heat. There have been many missed opportunities, including the shelving of past net zero homes standards for new homes (circa 2015) under pressure from the housebuilding sector at the time. Don’t put us in the same position looking back ten years from now, with ten more years of houses built that aren’t net zero homes, or are difficult/expensive to retrospectively convert.
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