Tory MPs call the green transition ‘unaffordable’. Europe proves that it’s a lie | George Monbiot
Oas all eyes were on another horror, our war on the living world went nuclear. Over the weekend, temperatures at some Arctic weather stations reached 30C above normal. Simultaneously, in some Antarctic weather stations, they reached 40°C above normal. Two events, although out of scale, are not trending. But in a record gathering of extreme and chaotic weather, these unprecedented simultaneous anomalies are terrifying.
Hot on their heels came news of another horrific event: massive coral bleaching on the Great Barrier Reef in a La Niña year. La Niña is the cold phase of the Pacific cycle. Until now, widespread bleaching had only occurred during warmer El Niño years. The likely impacts of the next El Niño are too terrible to contemplate.
We knew that climate degradation would occur abruptly. Earth systems that seemed stable, lives that seemed safe, would slip away. Everything we took for granted would suddenly be in play. It could happen now.
A characteristic of complex systems is that it is difficult to tell how close they may be to their critical thresholds until they have been crossed. Are we now passing the tipping points? The only rational response is to act as if it is not too late, and as if we have only the slightest opportunity to stabilize the system before it slips.
Instead, as if to announce its intention to push us beyond the point of no return, the UK government announced its intention to cut fuel taxes this week. Since the Cop26 climate summit last November, it has approved a new oil and gas field in the North Sea and proposes to approve six more. A published article yesterday by Dr Dan Calverley and Professor Kevin Anderson of the Tyndall Center for Climate Change Research shows that to allow only a 50% chance of staying below 1.5°C of heating, rich countries must end all oil production and gas by 2034. In other words, just as these new concessions begin to deliver, they will have to be closed.
But evil is the norm. The government discourages energy efficiency improvements by subjecting them to the highest rate of VAT (20%). When it cut green renovation grants in 2013, the number of attic insulations rose from 1.6 million a year at 126,000, and the rate never recovered. We could consider this as an experiment: what happens when you remove government incentives and let the “market” do it? Ah yes, we discover that the energy transition is entirely dependent on an effective state policy.
As a government committee on climate change observed this month, however, the UK’s strategy to decarbonise buildings relies on “voluntary targets” and “an untested market-based approach”. There are massive funding shortfalls, missing plans and a shocking absence of regulatory levers: it is impossible to see, on the basis of current policy, how the government could achieve even its own pathetic goals, let alone contribute much. significantly to the prevention of climate degradation.
Climate denial comes in waves and the current variety, tirelessly recited by right-wing Tory MPs, is to insist that the energy transition is “unaffordable”. But as the committee’s report shows, the average total cost of decarbonising homes is under £10,000. Even if every house in the UK were completely refurbished, it would cost less, according to these figures, than government spending on the pandemic or the financial crisis of 2008. The jobs created would allow it to recoup at least some of the money. Again, we have to ask why governments are bailing out the banks but not the planet.
Some have started to ramp up. In Italy, the government provides a remarkable 110% the cost of home energy improvements, which it pays as a tax credit over five years (the 10% covers financial and transaction costs). This super bonus program pays for everything: insulation, ventilation, new windows and doors, solar panels, heat pumps. It has design flaws – for example, it doesn’t encourage builders to limit their spending and was, at first, open to fraud – but these problems could easily be solved.
Finland has equipped about a third of its homes with heat pumps. It installs around twice as many every year as the UK, despite only having around a tenth the number of homes. Almost daily, I hear ignorant professionals claim that “heat pumps wouldn’t work in our cold climate”. But they work very well in Finland, which is much colder.
The Netherlands proposes to disconnect all their homes from the gas network. In Estonia, the capital, Tallinn, and most other counties offer free public transport. If Italy and Estonia can afford it, so can we.
As the Climate Change Committee pointed out, if gas prices remain as high as they are now, decarbonizing the entire economy would save money (0.5% of GDP). It would also lift people out of fuel poverty, which is greatly exacerbated by leaky homes and an addiction to fossil fuels. This would ensure that we are no longer beholden to Vladimir Putin and other fossil fuel powered autocrats.
The truth is that we can’t afford not to transform our economies. It is not decarbonization that is unaffordable; it is the degradation of the climate. If climate systems flip, our money will be as useless as Boris Johnson’s promises. Yet this government places it above life itself.