Climate change: As COP28 summit looms, we need to take some heat out of 'global boiling' debate – Paul Wilson

Backtracking on climate targets by politicians is a sign of problems with the switch to electric vehicles and heat pumps, and the transition to net zero

When world leaders and Humza Yousaf gather in Dubai next week for the COP28 annual climate summit, they will compare notes on progress towards net-zero carbon emissions. No one is going to emerge from this with flying colours. The UK has prided itself on setting the agenda for humanity’s response to climate change, but the verdict will still be: “Could do better.”

We have put in place ambitious targets on the route to the legally binding decarbonisation date of 2050. But problems with switching from internal combustion engines to electric vehicles and from gas boilers to electric heat pumps are becoming ever-more obvious.

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In September, Rishi Sunak delayed the ban on the sale of new petrol and diesel cars by five years, to 2035. The decision surprised and dismayed environmentalists. For years, to question the wisdom of foisting EVs on an unwilling public had been to risk being labelled a Luddite, or worse. But problems with the EV rollout are not going away and Sunak’s intervention demonstrates that politicians are starting to notice.

Some well-off early adopters may ask why, instead of grumbling about measures such as low-emission zones, motorists don’t simply buy a £40,000 electric car. Well, the most obvious problem is that price tag. EVs remain far beyond the reach of the average motorist.

There are nowhere near enough charging points and many don’t work. If you can find one, it will take far longer to charge the vehicle than to fill up with petrol. Many people do not own a garage or a drive on which they could charge their vehicle overnight.

Then there the safety concerns. There’s a significantly greater risk of spontaneous combustion or explosion. And they are notoriously expensive to repair. Little wonder they are proving so difficult to insure. At least one provider, John Lewis, is refusing to do so at all.

And how environmentally friendly are they anyway? Where are all those spent batteries supposed to go? The rare earth metals that go into them are often mined in Third World countries by workforces that include children and are not exactly unionised.

Your new EV may well have to be shipped from China, which is cornering the market. It can produce EVs far cheaper than anywhere in the West, to the great expense of businesses in countries such as Germany, where until recently the auto industry was the engine room of the eurozone’s economic powerhouse.

So far, the UK’s EV rollout is clearly not going as planned when MPs, in 2019, signed the country up to net-zero. Many motorists will have greeted Sunak’s September announcement with quiet relief that a modicum of realism had entered the debate. In Scotland, where we have a net-zero target five years earlier than the UK’s, Holyrood is poised to do some date-delaying of its own. It was reported at the weekend that ministers are expected to put off plans to require householders to replace their gas boilers with heat pumps from as early as 2025. Some well-off early adopters may ask why, instead of grumbling about high energy bills, householders don’t simply spend around £20,000 on a heat pump. Again, the obvious problem is that price tag. And the fact that many people live in flats. And that the pumps don’t seem to work very well in drafty British homes.

These EV and gas boiler policies were never properly debated. The public had little say and we now find ourselves backtracking. They are bad climate policies driven by irresponsible alarmism.

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The next time UN Secretary-General Antonio “global boiling” Guterres tells us we are “on the highway to climate hell”, it would be helpful to have some rough approximation of how far down this road to the apocalypse we really are. How long do we have left? Is it 100 years, or nearer 1,000? If it’s 10,000, I’m pretty relaxed about it and think you should be too.

Of course, we should be concerned about climate change, but not at the expense of our critical faculties. If we are told we are facing “code red for humanity”, we should definitely be able to have an open and honest debate about that. To what extent is the claim based on empirical evidence, and to what extent on computer modelling? What variables are factored into the modelling, and what aren’t? What is the degree of certainty, the margin for error?

Because simply scaring people could start to wear thin. People could switch off. Arguably, the level of interest ahead of COP28 so far suggests this is already happening. Perhaps people might switch on again if there is the open debate the subject demands. Could humans not adapt to changes in climate as we generally always have done? Could there be positives as well as negatives from a slight rise over several decades in carbon dioxide levels and global temperatures?

Amid the note-comparing in Dubai, world leaders should debate the economic cost of net zero-driven policies and try to set them against the benefits. Realistically, it makes little difference how many heat pumps and electric vehicles we do or don’t buy. We won’t move the needle on emissions until countries such as China, Russia, India and all the developing world stop putting improved living standards and bringing their populations out of poverty above reducing their carbon footprints.

Perhaps, once these countries have reached a kind of parity with us in terms of wealth and living standards, they too will become more concerned about emissions. Perhaps there is no purer expression of a First-World problem than anxiety over the non-existence of a carbon-neutral planet.

The journey to net zero by 2050 may be tough now but it is only going to get tougher. So to keep going along this road we had better be sure it makes rational sense. That requires a more open debate than we have had so far. Hopefully, this will start next week in Dubai.



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