Boris Johnson’s enthusiasm for his enthusiasms is well known. After he made up his mind as to whether he was for it or against it, Brexit was one of his enthusiasms.
This time last year at the Conservative Party conference, Johnson declared that within a decade the electricity for every home in Britain would come from offshore wind farms.
“Your kettle, your washing machine, your cooker, your heating, your plug-in electric vehicle – the whole lot of them will get their juice cleanly and without guilt from the breezes that blow around these islands,” he said.
Johnson pledged the UK would become the “Saudi Arabia of Wind power”. That boast appears now to have been last year’s enthusiasm.
This year’s enthusiasm is newer and better. A few days ago, sitting next to Bill Gates, Johnson vowed to make the UK the “Qatar of Hydrogen“.
Perhaps the best that can be said about all of this is that at least wind power does exist, even if it is expensive and unreliable. The technology to make electricity from hydrogen doesn’t. In any case, 20 per cent of Britain’s electricity comes from nuclear power.
This higher cost will fall disproportionately on families of lower incomes
But there’s one thing that can be said in Johnson’s favour. He is being a lot more honest with the people who voted for him about the costs of reaching “net zero by 2050” than is Scott Morrison.
Apparently, according to media reports, Australia’s Prime Minister told his cabinet that economic modelling had shown the impact of net zero on local industry would not be as bad as had been claimed. The Institute of Public Affairs, for example, has calculated net zero would put at risk 653,000 jobs, most of them in regional Australia.
Where are the facts?
The problem with Morrison’s comments to cabinet is that they’re based on a “confidential” report no one has seen. The report isn’t public, and it’s not known whether it ever will be.
During the 2019 federal election campaign, as Scott Morrison and the Coalition attacked Labor’s promise to cut carbon dioxide emissions by 45 per cent by 2030, he and his ministers had every detail and fact about the cost of the ALP’s plans at their fingertips.
Two years later, when it comes to information about the Coalition’s own policies – not so much.
In contrast, in Britain on Tuesday the Treasury department released its Net Zero Review Final Report: Analysis exploring the key issues as the UK decarbonises, which “considers the potential exposure of businesses and households to the transition”.
More taxes, lower public spending
The report’s conclusion is not anything that any policymaker doesn’t know already. It’s just that they don’t often tell the public about it.
There is this statement of the obvious, namely that government subsidies eventually have to be paid for by someone: “The cost of government-funded programmes will also be met by households through their taxes, or through lower public spending (and reductions in public services) in other areas.”
It would be good if more politicians remembered this basic truth.
These are two of the report’s key conclusions: “Although the highest income households emit around three times as much carbon as the lowest income households, they have incomes that are more than eight times greater than average” and “Housing and utilities are the most important sources of emissions for lower income households, making up around half of their emissions, compared to around one third for the highest income households”.
If the cost of carbon dioxide-emitting activities increases, of course this higher cost will fall disproportionately on families with lower incomes – or, in the language of the report, there will be “distributional impacts”.
While the report repeats the mantra on climate change that “the costs of global inaction significantly outweigh the costs of action”, it goes on to explain that those costs will “pass through to households through the labour market, prices and asset values” and that “the costs and benefits will not fall evenly across households”.
Indeed they won’t. Billionaires will get the benefit of feeling good about themselves, and the poor will pay the cost.
Meanwhile here in Australia, if the Prime Minister were to be asked what would be the cost of him going to Glasgow and agreeing to “net zero by 2050”, he either would not know or he would not say.