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The government’s net zero failures have left the door wide open for sceptics

The government’s green policies threaten to disadvantage the poorest – leaving room for the likes of the Net Zero Scrutiny Group to sow seeds of doubt, writes Big Issue environment reporter Sarah Wilson.

Last week, LBC host Nick Ferarri put a leading question to prominent climate campaigner Rupert Read on his morning radio slot: Which is more dangerous – Putin or climate change

“Both” was not the answer Ferarri was looking for. The question was digging for the kind of “gotcha” that LBC could package into a viral Twitter clip, and the tabloid press into a headline accusing eco-mob, bunny-huggers of rejecting Ukrainian refugees in favour of hemp shirts. 

After Read responded three times that both threats can be addressed simultaneously, Ferrari cut him off.

The exchange provided a perfect encapsulation of the siloed thinking that’s come to dominate discussions of climate change. Gone are days of outright climate denialism – in its place the deniers have become delayers, contending that climate action is too costly, too impractical or simply less important than more pressing social issues. 

Nowhere is this more obvious than in the sinister emergence of the Tory backbench Net Zero Scrutiny Group, (NZSG) and unfortunate re-emergence of Nigel Farage under the anti-net zero campaign banner “Vote Power Not Poverty” (VPNP).

Conveniently ignoring their reported links to climate sceptic organisations and individuals, both groups say their concern is for the poorest in society. Going net zero, they claim, will be too costly for the average consumer already being squeezed by the cost of living crisis

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On a macro level, both are wrong. Renewable energy was the world’s cheapest source of power in 2020, while electric vehicles are up to £1,300 cheaper per year to run than petrol cars. Research shows that David Cameron’s cutting of “green crap” levies on energy bills a decade ago has added around £2.5bn to the bills of millions today. 

Yet the claims of the NZSG and VPNP haven’t been plucked from thin air. Starry-eyed with the promise of green tech solutions and a heavy reliance on the market to drive forward net zero policy, the government is setting the UK on an unequal path to net zero – and leaving the door wide open for sceptics.

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Done right, climate action can have co-benefits across every level of society. In spite of what the likes of Ferrari might believe, insulating Britain’s homes, for instance, could tackle the climate crisis and fuel poverty while ending reliance on Russian gas imports at the same time. 

Yet done wrong, and climate interventions can have the opposite effect: exacerbating and deepening poverty, unemployment and other inequalities. The UK, the NZSC and VPNP have twigged, is at risk of heading down this latter path.

Look for it, and the examples are everywhere, with government interventions repeatedly failing to make going green accessible to ordinary households.

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Its push for electric vehicle take-up has offered no subsidies for purchase, while public transport continues to increase in price and decrease in reliability.

Thousands of jobs are at risk in the North Sea as we move away from fossil fuels, and while 80 per cent of oil and gas workers are keen to switch to renewable careers, they’re facing cost barriers of up to £8,000 every two years for training.

A much-vaunted heat pump scheme which opens next month, meanwhile, risks leaving poorer renters behind in the switch to cheaper, low-carbon energy. The £5k grants on offer won’t cover the full costs of installing low carbon heating, making it unlikely that non-bill-paying landlords will stump up the cash.

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The transition to net zero offers an exciting opportunity to actually “level up” in the way the government has been harping on about for years. Well-paid green jobs in everything from nature restoration to loft insulation could boost struggling economies, while active travel and access to green space could improve health inequalities while reducing NHS pressures.

There’s a clear mandate to take all these actions without delay. Surveys have repeatedly shown broad public support for climate change action across all age groups, political persuasions and demographics. 

Yet we now stand at a critical juncture. If the government fails to deliver a fair, fast transition to net zero and leaves the poorest behind, the claims of the NZSC and VPNP will become more credible, sowing seeds of doubt among a broadly supportive public. That, we truly can’t afford. 

@sarahirwilson

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