Net zero: can the economy and democracy survive?

Battle of Ideas festival 2023, Sunday 29 October, Church House, London


Climate change has become the great overarching mission of our times for politicians and business leaders. With the UN secretary general declaring that we are now in an era of ‘global boiling’, every leading politician talks about reducing greenhouse-gas emissions to ‘net zero’ – with the few emissions the economy does produce balanced by some method to soak them up, from planting trees to carbon capture and storage. As a result, a timetable has been created to eliminate emissions, step by step, between now and 2050.

Proponents of Net Zero argue that the process could be a creative one, leading to the development of new technologies and millions of well-paid ‘green’ jobs. Moreover, they point to opinion polls which suggest that the idea is popular with the public.

But the price to be paid for Net Zero is becoming ever clearer and is no longer a distant prospect. As soon as 2026, new oil-powered boilers will be banned and all new housing must have heat pumps installed. Gas boilers, petrol and diesel cars and cheap flights are all in the firing line.

But the impact of Net Zero goes way beyond these measures, with major impacts on jobs and livelihoods. For example, farmers in the Netherlands and Ireland have been angered by EU emissions targets that mean the number of animals that can be reared must be drastically reduced. Energy for industry is becoming more expensive, too, with many high energy users already looking at much lower costs in the US, where the exploitation of shale gas through fracking has kept prices low.

Opinion polls suggest that while Net Zero is popular in the abstract, the policies designed to make it happen are much less so. Moreover, with unanimity among the major parties in the UK that Net Zero is an inviolable policy, there is no electoral route to push back against such policies, except to vote for smaller parties with little hope of winning seats in the near future. Indeed, for some environmentalists, there can be no choice in the matter: if necessary, democracy must be sacrificed to the need to cut emissions.

That said, the Uxbridge by-election – which became something of a referendum on Sadiq Khan’s ULEZ policy – seems to have caused consternation among the major parties. Even though Net Zero itself wasn’t in question, a major environmental initiative seemed to be resoundingly rejected at the ballot box.

Is Net Zero an unpleasant necessity or, more positively, the start of a new industrial revolution? Or is it a policy that is being pursued without the technical means of achieving it in an affordable fashion? Will the backlash against Net Zero increase – and will it matter if governments are determined to pursue it, whether we like it or not?

Lord David Frost
member of the House of Lords

Rob Lyons
science and technology director, Academy of Ideas; convenor, AoI Economy Forum

Scarlett Maguire
director, J.L. Partners; former producer in media

John McTernan
political strategist, BCW; former director of political operations, Blair government; writer, Financial Times and UnHerd

Phil Mullan
writer, lecturer and business manager; author, Beyond Confrontation: globalists, nationalists and their discontents