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Being bossy about green issues won’t get us to net-zero any faster


3 min read

A recent McKinsey report reckoned the world would need to spend $275tn (£221tn) by 2050 to reach net-zero. That is almost three times current annual world income and output. The sum is so large because a full green transition requires the end of most fossil fuel energy, a radical change of electricity generation, and massive extension of electricity grids and cable systems.

It also requires switching over of most vehicles, planes, and ships to low or no carbon alternatives, the transition to vegetable-based diet, big changes in the way people heat their homes and cook, and the transformation of factories that currently rely on gas, coal and oil for power.  

There is no way governments can afford this. It needs most homeowners to find the money to rip out their gas boiler or replace the solid fuel fire, to change their car and to find food, holidays and entertainment that are light on the CO2.  

We are yet to discover the Beetle or Mini of the electric car revolution. Nor have we produced the smartphone or iPad of the home heating world. Instead, governments are trying to force people to buy products they actually do not want to buy, or banning and taxing products people do like until they give them up. This causes friction with many voters, and can lead to parties in government losing elections by being too bossy about green issues.  

There are many ways of creating a cleaner and greener future, but all successful ones will rest on consumer goodwill

The Dutch government fell when many voters thought it had gone too far trying to rid Dutch farms of livestock. The French rioted over higher fossil fuel taxes. Donald Trump is polling well on a platform of rejecting the net-zero imperatives and turning to extracting larger quantities of cheap domestic oil and gas. United States President Joe Biden has offered more drilling licences, against the wishes of green Democrats, for fear of losing votes.  

Governments treading the road to net-zero are urging people to buy electric cars. But for many they are too expensive and they are turned off by the lack of charging points across the country.  

Recent figures show falling sales of EVs across Europe. Tesla has been forced into layoffs, scaling back production and cutting prices to try to widen its appeal. 

Government and business should do more to develop low and no carbon fuel for internal combustion engines. We can produce small quantities of synthetic petrol for existing car engines, so why not scale it up and make it more affordable? 

People are understandably nervous about a potential future tax on electric cars to make up for the loss of petrol and diesel duties.  

All-electric heating is usually dear to run. Heat pumps are expensive to install. Anyone living in an older property may need to undertake extensive and expensive insulation and cladding of the building. They may also need to change the size of the pipes and radiators to get it warm enough with heat pump energy.  

Some people who have adopted heat pumps complain of high electricity bills and find it difficult to get the rooms hot enough. As a result only a very small proportion of people have bought them. The gas boiler remains more reliable, and a lot cheaper to install and run. 

The government will not stay elected if they force people to buy products that are too dear or underperform. There are many ways of creating a cleaner and greener future, but all successful ones will rest on consumer goodwill. 

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