John Humphrys - Climate Change: Time to Panic?

October 22, 2021, 3:43 PM UTC

Less than two weeks to go before leaders from around the world fly into Glasgow for COP-26. Everyone agrees it’s the most crucial climate change summit there has ever been.  But not every leader will be there. Most notable by his absence will be the Chinese leader President Xi. Given that China produces 28% of the world’s carbon emissions that matters. On the other hand, Boris Johnson unveiled a strategy this week that, he says, will reduce this country emissions on 1990 levels by 70% by 2035 and net-zero by 2050. Should that be a cause for national pride or a national groan? Is it any more than a rather grand and extremely costly gesture, given the lack of detail? More to the point, perhaps, is it more an aspiration than a viable strategy?

The announcement that grabbed most of the headlines was a scheme to get rid of the gas boilers that heat our houses and replace them with heat pumps. The principle may be sound – heat pumps don’t burn gas – but the details of how it might work have been attacked pretty savagely.

The first problem is cost.

Installing a heat pump costs at least £10,000. No problem, says the government, we shall have a ‘boiler upgrade scheme’. Homeowners will be able to apply for a £5,000 grant. But there is a problem because there’s only £450 million in the kitty. That may sound a lot but it will pay for only 90,000 heat pumps over three years. That is a tiny fraction of the number of boilers that will need to be replaced. The climate change committee, which advises the government on its strategy, puts the figure at 800,000. How we heat our homes is a critical issue. It accounts for about 15 per cent of the UK's greenhouse gases.  

But Boris Johnson, in his typically ebullient manner, used his statement to assure the nation that we have nothing to fear. In a forward to the strategy document, he said: 'For years, going green was inextricably bound up with a sense that we have to sacrifice the things we love. But this strategy shows how we can build back greener without so much as a hair shirt in sight.' He went further in an interview with the Sun: 'While we're going to have to make some pretty major changes to the way we heat our homes, the Greenshirts of the Boiler Police are not going to kick in your door with their sandal-clad feet and seize, at carrot-point, your trusty old combi.'

Another critical area is road transport. The sale of new petrol and diesel vehicles will be banned by 2030. There will be an extra £350million to support the electrification of UK vehicles and their supply chains, and another £620million for targeted electric vehicle grants and infrastructure. There will be a consultation next year on how many zero-emission vehicles will need to be sold each year and how it will be enforced. Boris Johnson promised that in the future 'our cars will be electric, gliding silently around our cities’.

Air transport is another crucial area. Ministers say that by 2030 ten per cent of aviation fuel will come from sustainable sources. It’s called SAF (sustainable aviation fuel) and will be made from materials such as everyday household waste, flue gases from industry, carbon captured from the atmosphere and excess electricity. SAF produces 70 per cent fewer carbon emissions than traditional jet fuel. Once again the message from the prime minister is bullish. By the middle of the century, he tells us we will be able to fly 'guilt-free' because 'our planes will be zero emission' thanks to advances in fuel technology. He dismisses the idea that 'going green' has to be 'inextricably bound up with a sense that we have to sacrifice the things we love'

Perhaps not, but Johnson’s critics say the strategy is so lacking in detail that it is verging on the meaningless.  They also point out that vast sums of money will need to be spent on the technological breakthroughs that will have to be achieved and there’s no clear indication as to where that money is going to come from. Patrick Hall, who runs the think-tank Bright Blue, said the insufficient costing of the scheme appears to show the Treasury had won in the 'tug of war' with No10 and the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy department. Mike Foster, of the trade body Energy and Utilities Alliance, said the limited funding 'suggests the Chancellor is putting the brakes on the Prime Minister's flight of green fantasy'.

The economist Emma Duncan who writes for The Times suggests we will be ‘astonished’ to learn from Boris Johnson that we are in a ‘win-win situation’ in which ‘everybody gets a free lunch. Cake may be both eaten and had… Difficult choices are so last century… Everywhere you look, in every part of the United Kingdom, there will be jobs. Good jobs, green jobs, well-paid jobs, levelling up our country while squashing down our carbon emissions.’

Like many other Johnson critics, Duncan believes that his optimism is based not on what he believes to be true but because he has to be seen to be delivering a positive message at Cop26. He also has to convince the climate doubters in his own party that there are powerful benefits to be derived from his strategy: vast numbers of new manufacturing jobs in ‘red wall’ areas of England that have suffered from the death of so many old industries.

The problem she and many other economists identify is that Britain's history of creating masses of good, green jobs is not encouraging. One example: when investment in wind power was getting underway back in 2010 the former prime minister Gordon Brown said it could support up to 70,000 jobs by 2020. Offshore wind now generates one-eighth of our electricity but it employs only about 7,200 people. The kit needed to generate wind power is made by other companies in other countries.

No-one doubts that technological advances are vital in the battle to save the planet, but some say even more important is that we all recognise the danger and accept that we have to change the way we live. We have to travel less. Foreign holidays should be the rare exception rather than the requirement. We have to turn down our thermostats at home and in the office. We have to cycle or walk rather than drive. We have to modify our diets: farming beef, for instance, puts much more carbon into the atmosphere than eating a more plant-based diet. We have to make do and mend rather than chucking out the old to buy the new. Especially where clothes are concerned. 

The polling evidence tells us that most people are now convinced that climate change really is happening and that it should not be ignored. But there are sharp differences between the true believers and the sceptics. The believers say we have a moral obligation to our children and grandchildren to change our lifestyles drastically and do everything possible to tread gently on this earth. It is, after all, the only home we have. The sceptics say there may well be a threat but it is being exaggerated and we risk over-reacting and, as a consequence, wrecking our economy.

Where do you stand? And why?

Let us  know.