Peter Dutton can follow Rishi Sunak’s lead to walk back the absurd net zero commitments of their previous PMs, argues political science professor David Martin Jones.
Nothing became Boris Johnson’s career in British politics more than the manner in which he left it. Rather than endure the indignity of a parliamentary ban after the House of Commons Privileges Committee found he was guilty of misleading parliament during the lockdown, Johnson resigned from politics thereby creating a by-election in his West London constituency, Uxbridge and South Ruislip. Given the deep unpopularity of the Conservative government he led between 2019-2022, it was widely assumed that the outcome of the by-election would be yet another ignominious defeat for the ruling party.
Nothing could have been further from the truth. Much to the surprise of the mainstream media, opinion pollsters, and the Labour opposition confidently anticipating victory, Johnson’s Conservative replacement, Steve Tuckwell, retained the seat. Tuckwell had campaigned on local issues and Johnson’s former constituents were far more concerned about local domestic issues than Boris’ party-gate shenanigans that preoccupied Westminster. The Mayor of London Sadiq Khan and the Labour-run city council’s decision to extend the ultra-low vehicle emission zone (ULEZ) across the wider metropolitan area and impose draconian fines on vehicles that breached emission targets, coupled with a proliferation of rarely used bike lanes and other initiatives aimed at restricting the use of cars, had alienated the electorate far more than Johnson’s incompetence. ULEZ felt like another local government attack on working Londoners rather than the woking variety. The woke variety assumes the militant form of Just Stop Oil protesters who regularly disrupt traffic and economic activity by adhering themselves to motorways and public buildings, while the metropolitan police—the paramilitary wing of The Guardian—look on benignly.
One swallow does not make a summer, but Uxbridge and South Ruislip might mark a turning point in British politics and the Conservative party’s electoral fortunes. Shortly after the by-election result, Rishi Sunak—Boris’ more pragmatic and less flamboyant replacement as Prime Minister—revealed the government’s decision to grant hundreds of new North Sea oil and gas licenses. On a visit to Scotland, Sunak observed, sacrilegiously, that Britain will still need fossil fuels even after the country reaches its net zero target. He said “it is better to produce oil and natural gas at home” rather than rely on imports.
This ought to be strikingly obvious to anyone endowed with a modicum of common sense. However, common sense—unlike natural gas—is a commodity in short supply among both major political parties, the green financial sector, big business, and the mainstream media. How did the pursuit of net zero become an ideological fixation of the UK’s ruling elites?
The net zero obsession traverses the British political landscape from Conservative, Labour, and Liberal Democrat manifesto commitments to the wilder shores of generously funded apocalyptic death cults such as Extinction Rebellion (XR) and Just Stop Oil who fervently believe continuing carbon emissions mean they will be the last generation on planet Earth. What might be the consequences of Sunak’s somewhat equivocal disavowal of the decarbonising consensus?
UK INC, NET ZERO, AND COOL BRITANNIA
Shortly before Sunak visited Scotland, Lord ‘Zac’ Goldsmith of Richmond Park resigned his post as Minister of State (Overseas Territories) for Energy, Climate and Environmentalism, ‘horrified’ at Sunak’s indifference to the UK’s ‘climate achievements’ and the impending climate apocalypse. Goldsmith is close to Boris Johnson and his eco-centric wife, Carrie. Johnson made net zero by 2050 a cornerstone of his strategy ‘to build back better’ after the pandemic lockdown. It was somewhat ironic therefore, that his successor as MP for Uxbridge might symbolise the end of the Tory party’s net zero commitment.
The green consensus in UK politics might end with Boris, but as with much else that went wrong with UK Inc after the end of the Cold War it began with New Labour and Tony Blair’s third way vision. The net zero agenda first assumed its current political form in the 1990s and that bygone era of Cool Britannia that now looks—like the Millennium Dome that symbolises it—tacky, faded, and meretricious.
Blair enthusiastically promoted the reduction of fossil fuels along with the deindustrialisation of the UK economy. Inspired by the UN climate conference in Kyoto (1997) and the green protocols adopted there, Blair announced a new climate change program at the start of the new millennium. As he observed in a speech in 2004 announcing the Climate Change Programme Review his government now “led the world in setting a bold plan and targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions”. It was already ‘on track’ to meet its internationally agreed Kyoto protocol targets. “Greenhouse gas emissions in 2003 were about 14 per cent below 1990 levels. But we have to do more,” he asserted.
The ‘more’ came in the form of a Friends of the Earth-inspired criticism of the review, reinforced by support from the Treasury economist Nick, later Lord, Stern’s encomium on the Economics of Climate Change (2005) that led to The Climate Change Act (2008). Introduced by Blair’s successor Gordon Brown and Environmental Secretary Ed Miliband, the act required the UK ensured its net carbon account for all six Kyoto agreed greenhouse gases was at least 100 per cent lower than its 1990 baseline by 2050.
The Act, which enjoyed cross-party support, committed the UK to becoming a low-carbon economy and established an ominous independent Committee on Climate Change to ‘advise’ on meeting targets and related policies.
A broad climate change consensus across the UK’s political, business and media elites crystalised in 2008. In that year Tony Blair was appointed to direct an international team “to tackle the intractable problem of securing a global deal on climate change”. Never known to underestimate his political ability, the former prime minister believed he “could prepare a blueprint for an agreement to cut carbon emissions by 50 per cent by 2050, and had the backing of the White House, the UN, and Europe”. As the Evening Standard noted, Blair also stood to make millions as a climate change adviser to international businesses.
‘Vote blue go green’ captured post-millennial Tory thinking.
While Blair devoted himself to building a green internationale, the Conservative/Liberal Democratic coalition government after 2010 and the Conservative party alone from 2015 asserted their green credentials by progressively reinforcing the Climate Change Act and the shibboleth of net zero. David Cameron, the Blair-lite Conservative leader from 2005, famously signalled his green awakening by hugging a husky. Under his leadership the Conservative brand turned green in an attempt to ‘detoxify’ what Cameron and a new generation of woke Tories believed to be the toxic legacy of Margaret Thatcher. A ‘vote blue go green’ agenda captured the new post-millennial Tory thinking. However, it was Cameron’s schoolboy and later conservative leadership nemesis, Boris Johnson, who became the most passionate champion of a post-industrial green future for the UK.
During Johnson’s brief prime ministership, the UK became the first major economy to adopt a legally binding obligation to reach net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. His government also committed the UK to achieve a 75 per cent reduction in fossil fuel consumption by 2035. In 2020, Johnson unveiled a ‘Ten Point Plan for a Green Industrial Revolution’ and a £12 billion government subsidy to sustain it. The following year, Johnson announced a post-lockdown ‘Net Zero Strategy to Build Back Greener’ (2021). The rhetoric is high Johnsonian, a beguiling mixture of hubristic optimism, can-do enthusiasm, and indifference to minor details such as the financial and economic costs.
The strategy, if it can be called that, is nothing less than “to lead the world in ending our contribution to climate change, while turning this mission into the greatest opportunity for jobs and prosperity for our country since the industrial revolution”. Ignoring the profound economic dislocation involved in a difficult, debt-ridden, post-Covid world, Johnson continued:
The United Kingdom is not afraid to lead the charge towards global net zero … because history has never been made by those who sit at the back of the class hoping not to be called on. Indeed, as we set an example to the world by showing that reaching net zero is entirely possible, so the likes of China and Russia are following our lead with their own net zero targets, as prices tumble and green tech becomes the global norm.
Notwithstanding the government’s determination to overlook the fact that China and Russia’s commitment to net zero was rhetorical rather than real, the failure to recognise that energy prices might not tumble, and that green tech might prove to be a costly delusion rather than the global norm, is astonishingly naïve from an otherwise sceptical, conservative, former Spectator editor. Johnson’s naïve-but-enthusiastic commitment to the green revolution, moreover, was not just confined to the UK’s flailing economic shores. His passionate zealotry, together with the promise of nuclear submarines, appears to have convinced Scott Morrison of the need for Australia to convert to the net zero sect with equally damaging consequences for conservative political fortunes and economic growth alike.
Net zero delivers only low wages, debt, high costs, and uncertain energy supply.
In fact, in Anthony Albanese’s hands Australia’s iteration of Johnson’s revolution is even more extreme. Fifteen months ago, the Albanese government claimed an election victory with several bold energy pledges. It promised to slash $275 off household power bills by 2025 and made a pledge to more than double the level of renewable energy in the system to 82 per cent by 2030. This is already proving disastrous with the shutdown of the national electricity market last winter, electricity and gas bills continuing to surge, and the government’s energy scheme, the Snowy 2.0 hydro expansion in NSW, now facing a $6 billion blowout and all original timelines in the bin. Even more perversely, Australia continues to neglect investing in coal-fire power stations at home, sending coal to China and India to fuel new power stations being built at a record rate. As Nationals Senator Matt Canavan recently pointed out, Chris Bowen and the Labor government are “living off the fat” of the export coal industry in Australia:
They are fuelling the economic growth and job creation in China and India but denying our own industry and manufacturing sector that same resource. It just makes no sense.
While the UK has, it seems, slowly begun to realise that net zero ‘revolutionary plans’ deliver only low wages, vertiginous levels of debt, and high-cost energy coupled with uncertain supply, Albanese and Chris Bowen continue to drive Australia down a path of economic destruction. Peter Dutton would be wise to take heed from Sunak, and indeed, push for Australia to get up to speed with the rest of the world.
As the AFR reported in late August “only 10 per cent of countries with climate change targets have detailed plans in place” and in those countries that do they are scaling back in response to voters who feel aggrieved at the costs of environmental policies. This change in the political climate has even hit uber-Green Germany with the Alliance 90/The Greens party suffering its biggest loss in 20 years. But what has brought about this apparent sea change in the political climate and the breakout of a new eco-realism?
CLARIFYING ACTS OF VIOLENCE
If truth was the first casualty of the current war in Ukraine, then the exposure of fondly held delusions must be the second. War and its outcome are never certain. This notwithstanding, violence clarifies. In the case of Vladimir Putin, it has exposed the illusion of Eurasianism, the failings of Russian hard power, and threatens reducing the Russian Federation to a dependency of Greater China.
In the case of Europe, and more particularly the UK, war has clarified not only its relationship with post-Soviet Russia, but also the delusions informing its net-zero energy policies along with Europe and the UK’s future economic security. Significantly, this is not the case with the US which despite its commitment to various international protocols remains secure in its fossil fuel resources. By contrast, as a result of three decades of punitive environmental governance, Europe faces another very difficult winter and an uncertain political and economic future. All European wars since the 18th century have been resource wars (about population, coal and iron, and now oil and gas). This is a basic fact of modern European history that its elites and the history’s fools that advise them ignore at their own and their citizens’ cost. The Ukraine war, and the misconceived sanctions regime, immediately exposed Western Europe’s dependency on Russian gas and oil.
Windmills and solar panels could never fill the gap.
In Germany it evinced the influence of a red/green lobby that inspired the ostensibly conservative Merkel administration to close all its nuclear facilities, which provided 13 per cent of its energy, by 2022. Three nuclear power stations closed in 2021. Germany is central to the European economy. It faces a staggering 65 per cent collapse in industrial output if Putin turns off the taps completely, potentially plunging the country into a deep recession. The Scholz government’s seizure of three Russian-owned oil refineries on German soil in late September 2022, in order to secure their oil holdings, indicated the extent of its political panic. Asset appropriation is usually the preserve of rogue States such as North Korea, Iran, Venezuela, and indeed Russia, before and since the fall of the Soviet Union. It is unusual for a stable, Western democracy. But these are unusual times.
Meanwhile the UK, which left the EU in 2020 allegedly to ‘take back control’, remains committed to the net zero carbon agenda. In fact, as we have seen, it has exceeded Europe’s already strict targets, to the detriment of its energy security. Grave errors by past energy ministers of all political stripes range from: opposition to nuclear power in 2001 (Tony Blair); refusal to back new clean coal plants in 2009 (Gordon Brown); supporting wood pellet plants over new gas in 2012 (Ed Davey, Lib Dem); the end of carbon capture funding in 2015 (Dave Cameron); the closure of the Rough gas storage site for reserves in 2017 (Theresa May); and the gas fracking ban in 2019 (Boris Johnson). At the same time, to meet EU rules, between 2000 and 2017 more than a third of the UK’s baseload electricity generating capacity was closed without any comparable net replacement. Instead, ministers approved weather-dependent renewables and more interconnectors to import power from the Continent, thus offshoring British energy jobs, resilience, and security. New nuclear power is already 20 years late.
Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, David Cameron, Theresa May, and Boris Johnson oversaw the running down of British energy security, diversity and resilience, representing the biggest national policy failure since World War II. In July 2022, the National Grid had to panic-buy staggeringly expensive Belgian electricity to avoid power cuts. As power demand surged during that year’s heatwave, the National Grid paid £9,724 (about A$19,000) per megawatt hour—more than 50 times the usual price—to prevent blackouts in London. A year later, Britain, once a net energy exporter, increasingly relied on French nuclear power for its electricity supply.
Meanwhile, a compliant media and the European political class keep citing Russia/Ukraine as the reason for this very avoidable energy crunch. The real story is much more damning, delusional, and home-grown. The writing was on the wall years ago as governments across Europe slavishly followed EU diktats and closed coal, nuclear, and oil-fired power stations without clear policies to build cleaner equivalent replacements. Weather-dependent windmills and solar panels could never fill the gap. The EU’s various power station directives, first supported by the Blair government in 2001, forced the UK to start shutting key plants from 2012.
The crisis has, moreover, exposed Europe’s over-dependence on imported power. This has huge implications for energy security, resilience, future bills, and climate change. Why has reliable home-grown generation across the EU, and particularly in the UK, been placed at such a discount? The EU, UK, and German governments, their advisers, their media, and academe all insist it is a result of Covid disruption and the Ukraine war, and a mere bump on the road to net zero by the decade’s end. Actually, it is the net zero agenda and the policy of carbon offsetting as described by US former bond trader Stephen Soukup in The Dictatorship of Woke Capital: How Political Correctness Captured Big Business (Encounter Books, 2021) that have generated the current malaise.
A failed energy policy inflicts huge pain.
The demonisation of the gas, oil, and coal bridge to a non-carbon future has inflicted notable self-harm on the potential of UK and, by extension EU, energy self-reliance. The forced deployment of thermodynamically incompetent and environmentally damaging ‘renewables’ has produced high consumer costs, great fragility of supply, and the proliferation of junk assets via environmental governance criteria, undermining the economy’s energy foundations. Nor, ironically, has it contributed to ameliorating environmental problems in useful ways. Instead, environmental, social and governance (ESG) criteria were written into the 2017 UN Principles for Responsible Investing. Pension funds and investment trusts sign up to these woke principles with economic and geopolitical costs. Soukup reports that by the middle of 2017 the ESG movement had gone mainstream as some “1600 asset owners representing $62 trillion signed the UN PRI”.
Net zero and ESG explains why the UK failed to develop gas fracking or grant licences for further exploration of the North Sea (until Rishi Sunak’s very recent awakening), preferring green virtue signalling by offsetting its carbon emissions and importing gas from the Middle East and North America. Like celebrities offsetting flying private jets by planting trees in the Amazon or being asked to offset your carbon footprint every time you step on a plane, this mechanism only facilitates a multi-billion-dollar financial services industry and increasingly dubious and under-performing ESG investment vehicles. It is the 21st century equivalent of the papal indulgences sold on a mass scale. Europe’s continuing energy crisis has exposed the dangerous and failed doctrine of draconian out-of-date targets and poor policymaking over a generation.
A failed energy policy inflicts huge pain on households, industry, and the wider economy. It diverts investment and stops job creation. Post-Brexit UK, in particular, needs to understand how and why its political leaders failed in this most critical area of policy for the national interest. The tragedy is that it took an energy price shock of the scale currently sweeping Europe, together with the damaging policies for decarbonising the economy and lowering emissions, to rouse the masses and alarm a complacent political elite. Rishi Sunak’s dawning realisation that energy security might be of greater salience to the UK’s future than hysterical claims about climate apocalypse is welcome. But given the extent of popular disenchantment with a generation of privileged green Tories, it might be too late.
Living beneath its current monarch’s illusory green canopy, the UK is on course to fall below South Korea, Lithuania, and even Poland in terms of GDP per capita. Under a woke green Labour/Lib Dem coalition the decline will be even more precipitous.
All Dutton has to do is push common sense.
While Albanese and Bowen continue to zealously follow the Johnson-Morrison commitment to net zero and economic ruin, now is the time for Peter Dutton to rouse the masses and strike à la Sunak. Australia does not have Europe’s over-dependence on imported power; it sits on some of the world’s most efficient and clean coal, gas, and uranium resources. We have a government hell-bent on weather dependent, often Chinese-made, foreign-owned wind and solar farms that drive up power prices, destabilise the grid, and are nothing remotely resembling recyclable. All Dutton has to do is look to the rest of the world and push common sense, and he will connect with mainstream Australians in a manner the elites could only dream of.
David Martin Jones is Research Director at the Danube Institute, Budapest; a Visiting Professor in War Studies, King’s College London; Visiting Professor in the University of Buckingham’s Humanities Research Institute; and an Honorary Professor at University of Technology, Sydney.