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Double Check: Should We Actually Worry About the Cost of Net Zero?

Double Check: Should We Actually Worry About the Cost of Net Zero?

From October 31, the 2021 UN Climate Change Conference, also known as COP26, will get going. But rather than focusing on how we can reach climate targets, several U.K. commentators have asked if it’s economically feasible at all. A lead for The Telegraph on October 13 warned “the net-zero crusade is futile without China.” A day later, it ran another piece stating that “Boris Johnson’s eco-Micawberism will not pay the bills of net-zero.” Experts in climate disinformation have warned that these observations are not only dispiriting but also point to a long-standing trend of climate skepticism in the U.K. 

These two Telegraph articles were tweeted several times by one particular group. Formerly known as the Global Warming Policy Forum (GWPF), on October 11, the newly dubbed Net Zero Watch announced a new set of targets. Founded by Lord Nigel Lawson in 2009, it describes itself as “a campaign group set up to highlight and discuss the serious implications of expensive and poorly considered climate change policies.” For climate activists, the group’s rebrand signals amped-up efforts to create climate skepticism by latching on to the public fears around rising gas prices and fuel poverty. 

After being denied status as an educational charity, the group established a separate arm, The Global Warming Policy Foundation, to secure private donations. Bob Ward, a director for the LSE’s Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment, raised the alarm on the group’s attempts to gain charitable status to the Charity Commission in 2014.

This has not necessarily curtailed the group’s efforts. “Under the forum, they can run primarily as a political campaign and carry out propaganda tactics. Net Zero Watch is still wholly owned by the subsidiary of the Global Policy Watch Foundation, and carries out the exact same techniques,” Ward told Logically. 

The group fits into a category best described as lukewarmers – skilled lobbyists who play down the severity of climate change and overplay the costs of policies and technologies to reduce carbon emissions. 

Net Zero Watch’s members are careful not to express sentiments that could amount to outright climate denial or conspiracy. Instead, the group fits into a category best described as “lukewarmers” – skilled lobbyists who play down the severity of climate change and overplay the costs of policies and technologies to reduce carbon emissions. 

Case in point: in a recent interview with GB News, Net Zero Watch’s newest member, Conservative MP Steve Baker, said, “Gas is far better for emissions than coal, and it’s clear we should be going for it [...] we’re in a position now where we can’t afford to be driven by fantasies on what can and can’t be delivered and silly ideas on what to store as electricity. You would need four and a half trillion pounds of batteries, even by the most conservative of estimates. We need politically and economically viable methods.”

There are pros and cons to almost all methods of sustainability, but Baker’s claims are still misleading. Data shows that the price of lithium-ion batteries has declined by 97 percent since 1991. The same research acknowledges that storage for solar and electrical energy comes at a high cost, but that these technologies have also declined in price. 

In an interview with TalkRadio, Net Zero Watch’s Andrew Montford claimed that climate-related deaths have been entirely misreported. “People like the Royal Academy of Medical Sciences and the Royal Society, they will never talk about climate-related death, which hasn’t just reduced, it has collapsed. It’s down by 90 percent in over 100 years.”

These statements are even more dubious. The Royal Academy of Medical Science reviewed evidence showing that policies to tackle climate change can have a positive impact on individuals’ health. The measures suggested include investing in public transport and pedestrianized spaces, as 28,000 to 36,000 deaths per year are caused by air pollution caused by fossil fuels. A study from Monash University found that changing temperatures resulted in approximately five million deaths each year between 2000-2019. While deaths related to coldness fell by 0.51 percent, heat-related deaths rose by 0.21 percent. 

Montford may have been referring to a report from the World Meteorological Organization. This does indeed state that climate-related deaths fell between 1970 and 2019, but this is attributed to investment in emergency disaster relief and better reporting of adverse weather events. Meanwhile, the report found that the number of natural disasters caused by climate change in the first place has increased by a factor of five over a 50-year period. 

Neither the sense of urgency around tackling climate change and the response from ordinary people in demanding government action can be diminished, as two-thirds of people recognize that climate change is a global emergency and the majority support green policies. As such, Ward does not believe that Montford and others will attain their goal. “I don’t think that [Net Zero Watch] will be successful in ending support for reaching net-zero, but I do think they could stir up plenty of confusion on how we get there. They tell us over and over again that it’s not worth the investment, and it’s not worth the effort.”

By bombarding readers with information on the economic costs of various green policies alone, they push the narrative that there can be no alternative to fossil fuels. 

Not all of the specifics of the Net Zero Watch’s cited stories are necessarily inaccurate. It is true, for instance, that there are problems around installing wind farms, and climate groups are aware of the benefits and challenges of implementing solar and electric technology. However, by bombarding readers with research on information on the economic costs of various green policies alone, they push the narrative that there can be no alternative to fossil fuels. 

As Ward points out, no economic argument is convincing enough to prove that fossil fuels have not caused immeasurable damage. “In general, fact checking claims about the economy can be much more difficult than fact checking claims about science. They present the argument that they know that the human impact of climate change is all around us, but it’s expensive and complicated, so what can we do?”

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