Helen Millman: Sunak’s climate change speech last week was disappointing. Here’s why Net Zero fits his five priorities. | Conservative Home

Dr Helen Millman is a climate scientist and glaciologist based at the University of Exeter. She writes in a personal capacity.

Across the globe, people are already losing lives, homes and livelihoods due to climate change. This year, we have witnessed devastating wildfires, floods, heatwaves, and cyclones. These extreme weather events will become more frequent and more severe for as long as it takes us to get to Net Zero.

Against this backdrop, it was disappointing to see the Prime Minister backtracking on our Net Zero commitments last week. Net Zero should be considered key to achieving the Prime Minister’s five priorities: halving inflation, growing the economy, reducing debt, cutting waiting lists, and stopping the boats.

Halving Inflation

High inflation has been largely driven by the increased cost of fossil fuels. Although global oil and gas prices have come down recently, bringing inflation with them, we will be vulnerable as long as we are dependent on fossil fuels. Electricity from home-grown renewables is the cheapest electricity in history and a rapid shift to wind and solar would help to keep inflation low in the long term.

The decision to abandon various green policies in 2013 left us exposed to fluctuations in the global fossil fuel market. Household energy bills were over £3 billion a year higher than they would’ve been if those policies had remained in place. We cannot repeat this mistake. More support for households to install insulation, heat pumps, and solar panels would lower bills permanently, whereas the £40 billion that the government spent last winter to subsidise energy bills did nothing to solve the underlying problem.

The cost of food has also been driving inflation. The Russian invasion of Ukraine added pressure to the global grain market and increased the price of fertiliser, while farmers are already feeling the impacts of climate change. If we do not meet our Net Zero commitments, UK agricultural yields will decline and we will increase the risk of simultaneous failure of the world’s breadbaskets. This would mean shortages and dramatic price hikes for UK consumers, and starvation and forced migration for the developing world.

Growing the economy

Net Zero is the foundation of our economic future. It could be worth £1 trillion to UK business by 2030. We have a great opportunity to become a global leader in low-carbon sectors, such as renewable energy, electric vehicles, green hydrogen, and green finance. These sectors are expected to grow rapidly in the coming years, creating new markets and employment opportunities while reducing emissions.

The UK has made some progress in decoupling economic growth from emissions, especially in the power sector, where offshore wind has played an important role. However, there are still barriers that hinder potential green growth and industries need consistent and coherent policy support for Net Zero and adequate government investment in infrastructure.

Reducing debt

Whereas Net Zero offers the potential for a growing green economy, not zero guarantees economic challenges. Debt cannot be reduced if the physical environment is hostile and unpredictable due to increasing global temperatures. Climate change will damage infrastructure, disrupt supply chains, and raise health costs. Models used by financial institutions to evaluate risks drastically underestimate the economic impacts of climate change, and a sudden correction in asset values would be disastrous for the economy.

At a time when the world is moving away from fossil fuels towards clean energy sources, the decision to issue new North Sea oil and gas licenses is not only incompatible with achieving Net Zero emissions, it is also incompatible with reducing debt. As the cost of extraction increases and the demand for fossil fuels decreases, the North Sea oil and gas industry will face declining revenues and stranded assets.

Taxpayers heavily subsidise the installation and decommissioning costs of new oil and gas rigs. These costs mean that the fossil fuel industry is set to be a loss to the Treasury, even where the costs of damages caused by burning fossil fuels are excluded.

Cutting waiting lists

Net Zero policies would significantly improve the nation’s health and cut waiting lists. Incentivising healthier diets would lower the risk of obesity and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Supporting the transition to EVs, improving public transport, and encouraging active travel would improve air quality, boost productivity, and reduce pressure on the NHS.

However, the most effective step the Government could take to reach Net Zero and cut hospital admissions is to ensure that homes are properly insulated. As well as helping to tackle the cost of living crisis, this would reduce the  £1.4 billion per year that the NHS spends on treating people who are affected by illnesses related to poor housing.

We must also recognise the increasing health risks that we face as the climate warms. There were over 3000 excess deaths during the heatwaves of 2022, where temperatures reached an unnatural high of over 40℃.

Extreme weather is not the only risk that climate change poses to our health. Tropical species of mosquito are likely to reach the UK, bringing diseases such as dengue, zika, and West Nile virus. Climate change also increases the risk of viruses jumping from one species to another, making pandemics like COVID-19 more likely.

Stopping the boats

If we fail to meet our Net Zero commitments, this would trigger the biggest forced migration in history. Drought, famine, and conflicts over increasingly scarce resources would be major push factors, but the potential impact of sea level rise shouldn’t be overlooked.

We have already warmed the world by 1.2℃ meaning that 3 metres of sea level rise may be locked-in regardless of future emissions trajectories. A low emissions scenario could slow this rise to happen over centuries but without significant emissions reductions now, coastal communities should prepare for sea levels over 2 metres higher within the lifetimes of today’s children.

In this scenario, even developed countries would be unable to defend their coastlines and many of the world’s major cities and ports would be lost, displacing hundreds of millions of people. We cannot prevent forced migration without addressing climate change.

Net Zero is the greatest challenge that humanity has ever faced, but it is also a tremendous opportunity for our future. We must grasp this opportunity and not succumb to the shameful temptation of evading our responsibilities. Climate change is a hard, physical reality. It is not something that can be solved with a press release or a culture war.

The goalposts cannot be moved. We have a moral, legal, and economic duty to cut our emissions by 68 per cent of 1990 levels by 2030 and reach Net Zero by 2050. The Prime Minister’s top priority should be to ensure that we meet these targets.

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