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An “honest” debate over the cost of net zero

  • by JW

… and the workings of number 55 Tufton Street.


Perhaps a certain amount of scepticism is due when it comes to ‘net-zero carbon emissions’ – but not because carbon emissions need to be reduced, but because “carbon neutrality targets are often not as ambitious as they sound, relying on problematic carbon offsets and unproven technologies.” And many an observer sees ‘net zero’ as simply business as usual.

Donnachadh McCarthy writing in the Independent last year asked: “When does ‘zero’ not mean ‘zero’? When it’s greenwashing, of course”:

Net-zero was being abused by corporations and that a cross society effort was needed to expose and force them into a genuine decarbonisation process. Net-zero 2050-ism must not be allowed to give oxygen to the lie that we can continue business-as-usual, without radically changing our lifestyles and economies.

And Dr James Dyke of the University of Exeter from two years ago suggested that “the concept of net zero is a dangerous trap”:

This is a great idea, in principle. Unfortunately, in practice it helps perpetuate a belief in technological salvation and diminishes the sense of urgency surrounding the need to curb emissions now. We have arrived at the painful realisation that the idea of net zero has licensed a recklessly cavalier “burn now, pay later” approach which has seen carbon emissions continue to soar. 

The recent debate on the need for an ‘honest debate around net zero’ has focussed largely on the governments’ policy to water down net zero sooner – and people’s struggle to afford any actions, as highlighted by Ross Clark writing in the Spectator:

When people are asked whether they support the net zero target in general they tend to say ‘yes’. But when they are asked whether they support specific policies, taking into account the effect on their personal finances, they answer very differently. 

Much of Ross Clark’s writing for the Spectator has been very critical of net zero. And indeed, as noted by the Carbon Desmog website, Clark regularly questions climate science.

In his latest column, Clark asks: “Has the true cost of net zero finally been revealed?” – and yet the report by the think tank Civitas which he refers to has been largely dismissed. However, along with the Spectator, the “embarrassingly wrong” Tufton Street Net Zero Report has received widespread coverage, again as covered by the Desmog website this week:

A report from the Tufton Street group Civitas on the supposed cost of net zero was featured in several major newspapers today despite serious data errors. Authored by management consultant Ewen Stewart, the report claimed that achieving net zero emissions will cost the UK £4.5 trillion, or £6,000 per household per year, by 2050.

The report was covered in the the Times, Daily Express, Daily Mail, the Spectator, and the influential conservative blog Guido Fawkes through both news reports and opinion pieces. The report was also shared by leading climate science denial groups, including Net Zero Watch, the campaign arm of the Global Warming Policy Foundation.

However, the Civitas report has been criticised as inaccurate by several prominent climate academics and journalists. Simon Evans, senior policy editor at Carbon Brief, posted a thread on X (formerly Twitter) explaining the “embarrassingly wrong figures” published by Civitas and amplified by prominent media outlets. Notably, the Civitas report confuses the electrical measurement units MW (megawatt) and MWh (megawatt-hour), according to Evans, therefore massively overestimating the cost of building new onshore wind turbines. The report suggests that new onshore wind turbines will cost £1.3 million in capital expenditure per MWh when, in reality, the cost is only a fraction of that amount, at £50-70 per MWh.

Civitas estimates that the total capital expenditure on onshore wind turbines will come to £810 billion. Even using the false MWh costs, this £810 billion figure is a miscalculation, according to Barnaby Wharton of Renewable UK. Civitas has acknowledged these errors following a backlash on social media, though the report remains online.

Simon Evans writing in the Guardian looks at “How a thinktank got the cost of net zero for the UK wildly wrong”:

Imagine demanding an “honest” debate over the cost of net zero in a report full of errors that even a schoolboy would be embarrassed about. Then imagine getting coverage of your report in the Sun, Times, Daily Mail, Daily Express and Spectator. Sound impossible? Well, let me tell you how Civitas, one of the thinktanks housed at 55 Tufton Street in London, did exactly that, and nearly got away with it.

On Wednesday, Civitas published a pamphlet on net zero by Ewen Stewart, whose consultancy, Walbrook Economics, works on “the interaction of macroeconomics, politics and capital markets”. Stewart is also a climate sceptic, having written in 2021 that human-caused warming is a “contested theory”. Along with Civitas, 55 Tufton Street also houses the climate-sceptic lobby group the Global Warming Policy Foundation and its campaigning arm Net Zero Watch. These groups previously attempted to spark an “honest debate about the cost of net-zero” in 2020.

The Civitas report claims to offer a “realistic” £4.5tn estimate of the cost of reaching net zero emissions by 2050 and says “the government need to be honest with the British people”. This estimate is much higher than the figure produced by the government’s official adviser, the Climate Change Committee (CCC), which has said that reaching net zero would require net investments of £1.4tn by 2050. Note the difference between Civitas’s “costs” and the CCC’s “net investments”. The CCC also found that reaching net zero would generate savings in the form of lower fossil fuel bills worth £1.1tn, resulting in a net cost of £0.3tn.In his report for Civitas, Stewart adopts the well-worn climate-sceptic tactic of simply ignoring these savings. He also ignores what the Office for Budget Responsibility has called the potentially “catastrophic economic and fiscal consequences” of unmitigated climate change.

This is number 55 Tufton Street, which hosts “a network of libertarian lobby groups and think tanks related to pro-Brexit, climate science denial and other fossil-fuel lobby groups”. Or, as the Desmog website suggests, “the building is home to several groups that either spread misinformation about climate science or lobby against government action to reduce emissions.” And now, the Good Law Project has embarked on a series of legal interventions “focused on Tufton Street cronyism: undisclosed donors, misinformation, astro-turfing, opacity and lobbying”.