On net zero, Britain can’t afford to be the moral model to the world

Rishi Sunak
Rishi Sunak

Amidst the apocalyptic rage that swept through the broadcast media following Rishi Sunak’s decision to bring some of our net zero regulations into line with the EU and much of the developed world, there was one theme that arose repeatedly.

Because every febrile discussion with a spokesman for the green lobby had to contend with the fact that the UK’s contribution to global emissions was vanishingly small - around 1 per cent - the question was unavoidable: why should we be creating ever more punitive costs for our population when the effect on the climate will be negligible?

Almost all of the outraged interviewees had the answer ready to hand: this country’s net zero policy was not a question of its physical effect on the environment - even though you might have assumed that physical effect was what this was all about. It was a matter of Moral Leadership. Britain’s actions might have no impact whatsoever on the reality of climate change itself, but they must stand as an example to the world of how a nation and its people could willingly make sacrifices in the name of the greater good. We should not just follow the worldwide (or European) model, we must be the advance guard. To which you may well ask, why?

The answer generally became clear in the ensuing dialogue, usually helped along by sympathetic treatment from the interviewer. In this doctrine of evangelical self-sacrifice, there was often explicit reference to our historic guilt in having founded the industrial revolution which ultimately created this potentially grave world problem.

And yes, it was indeed the British genius for innovation that produced the modern age of technical progress which led to the greatest expansion of mass prosperity in human history, and a good deal of that progress depended on carbon fuels.

So it is concluded by the green jeremiads that our nation must now make amends for its past by engaging in self-flagellating atonement. We must lead the way, be an exemplar of virtue above and beyond what other countries undertake - even though they are, in the present day, knowingly culpable in their refusal to alter their practices.

Does this story seem familiar? Once again, as with colonialism and slavery, we are being offered a doctrine of original sin in which the current population of Britain is being asked to accept punishment and sacrifice for the actions of earlier generations.

To add to this absurdity, these punishments and sacrifices would most severely affect the lives of those who are least wealthy and privileged - and whose own forebears may not even have lived in Britain at the time of the industrial revolution. This is really nothing more than a form of neurotic self-indulgence on the part of an entitled cohort of influencers who have no idea of the realities of life in struggling households.

Don’t get me wrong. I can understand why setting a moral standard for other countries to follow can be an attractive ideal, and I particularly admire the courage and altruism which the British have shown in war, and, most pertinently, in stopping the slave trade.

But there is a problem here for the liberal Left, is there not? To be more precise, there is a problem for Labour.

Sir Keir Starmer has committed his party to reversing the Sunak changes. In government, they would put back precisely those onerous deadlines for abolishing the technology on which the least prosperous people depend.

That is an odd enough position for the leader of a party which once presented itself as the voice of the working class and the disadvantaged. But what is even more perplexing is that he has justified this rejection of the Sunak changes on the grounds that they create difficulties for industry. By altering the mandated date for ending new petrol car production, they will inject uncertainty into the manufacturers’ future plans.

This is a perfectly plausible argument in its own terms but it is scarcely one you would expect to hear from Labour. Does Sir Keir now wish to be seen as the protector of the interests of what used to be called corporate capitalism? Is this part of his attempt to make his party appear business-friendly and realistic about the future of investment? Or is he just desperate to find some credible-sounding grounds for rejecting a policy change that is not only eminently sensible but likely to be hugely popular with Labour’s core voters?

Then there is an even more awkward contradiction which has arisen because of the samizdat leak of his remarks in Canada - where presumably he thought he was speaking to a gathering of like-minded friends.

It was his intention, he said without any seeming ambivalence, to keep UK regulations and practices in line with those of Europe in order to maintain as close a relationship as possible with the EU. But wait a minute. Isn’t that exactly what the Sunak amendments to net zero regulations are doing - bringing the deadline for ending petrol car production into line with the EU? So why does Sir Keir have a problem with that? It’s exactly what he is advocating, isn’t it?

What this apparently modest alteration in climate policy has done is quite startling. It not only opens up the possibility of a grown-up discussion about the practical and ethical consequences of net zero policy. It also shifts the ground on which the established parties will carry on their electoral argument.

The idea that the UK should appoint itself as a moral model to the world - at the cost of increasing hardship and limiting freedom for its own population - is out in the open. It is, in its logic, remarkably similar to the old unilateral nuclear disarmament argument but that at least did not threaten the financial survival of ordinary families.

Sunak is on to something much bigger here than his tiny little alterations to deadlines. He is calling for a debate with more clarity and less emotion, and for policy that involves consent not imposition. That really would be a big change.

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