Net Zero needs a democratic mandate
Net Zero will face a backlash if it doesn’t attain a proper mandate – this election must give it one, argues Benedict McAleenan from Policy Exchange
This article was originally published at BusinessGreen.com
Whether its ‘Essex man’, ‘Mondeo man’ or ‘Worcester woman’, every election seems to have its target voter whom the parties hope will deliver them a majority. This time, for the Conservatives at least, we’re told it’s the disenfranchised Leave voter, a non-graduate, usually male, middle aged or older, white and concerned about crime and immigration. He’s sick of political games and keen to ‘Get Brexit Done’.
The archetype doesn’t just apply to this election but goes back years. In his 2017 book, The Road to Somewhere, my colleague David Goodhart framed the societal challenge in a similar way: we are a nation divided into Somewheres and Anywheres.
Somewheres are people who feel attached to a place, who value community and are likely to spend their lives close to their birthplace and family rather than leaving for university, never to return. Anywheres tend to be more attracted to travel, go to university and gravitate to urban centres, especially London. They are often more affluent and liberal in their politics, though this can lead to a perceived (or actual) snootiness, an intolerance of more conservative Somewhere values. It’s a spectrum, of course, and no one consciously identifies as one or the other, but there are very clear patterns in demographic and polling data.
In recent decades, the Anywheres have been winning. Despite being the minority, the economy has been designed around them: globalisation, urbanisation, liberalisation are all trends that acutely benefit the Anywheres.
This is where Net Zero apologists need to be careful. In the proud history of British environmentalism, most emphasis has been on local conservation. Britain has a tradition of mass-membership charities like the National Trust, Wildlife Trusts, the Woodland Trust, who were until recent years only focused on protecting the wildlife before our eyes. This is Somewhere environmentalism. And there’s a big overlap with conservatism, especially via Conservative Party members. Policies like Nature Recovery Networks and woodland creation will find a receptive audience here.
If local conservation is the Somewhere form of environmentalism, then climate change is the gold standard Anywhere issue. It’s literally everywhere. It’s pretty much invisible, so you have to trust the scientists. It’s also international, meaning that the warnings might be coming from far beyond our borders. Somewheres may not respond entirely positively to being told their way of life is stealing the childhood of a Swedish 16-year-old. But many Anywheres will instinctively relate.
A neat example of the dichotomy can be found in the onshore wind debate. People who love their landscapes, and most likely belong to environmental membership groups, vociferously objected to a cheap technology designed to save the planet. The debate lays bare the divide within the environmentalist cause.
The reason this matters comes down to the dirty secret of the Net Zero agenda: it doesn’t have an actual mandate. Granted, the definition of a political mandate is hard to find in these days of disputed referenda. But put it like this: it was not a manifesto promise of the ruling parties in 2017. There was no division in the lobbies of the House of Commons. It doesn’t have a referendum to back it up. And yet it will affect the lives of millions as profoundly as any of the other ‘mega projects’, such as EU integration. And we know how that’s gone, politically speaking.
We’re told that these Somewhere voters have often lived in the same homes for a long time. So they’re going to need a good explanation why their boiler needs replacing with a new hydrogen one. They’re over 45 and so will be at least 65 when they find they can no longer buy an internal combustion car. They live in regions with a history of industrial overhauls, so another such shift, mid or late career, might be met with wary eyes.
In Australia, the USA, France and many other countries, people are being told that they have to trust Greta, listen to school children, put up with Extinction Rebellion encampments, pay attention to the science. And they’ve pushed back. Some have rioted in Paris, Australians have rejected a highly environmental manifesto at the ballot box and some Brits have dragged protestors down from the tops of commuter trains, kicking and screaming. Readers of BusinessGreen may look on appalled, but the best response is to try to understand and co-opt the sceptical.
The concept of Net Zero matters deeply, but the politics so far has been unnervingly one-dimensional. That reflects the hidden ways we’ve found to decarbonise in Britain, mainly large power stations being replaced. As the Committee on Climate Change tells us, the next phase will be harder.
Creating a mandate starts at this election. Every party must place Net Zero on their pledge card as the most basic route towards giving it a mandate. Beyond that, the new class of MPs must focus on environmental policies with a steely glare. We rely on them to scrutinise policies and make them work for us, no matter what topics they cover. It doesn’t wash to claim we’re in a climate emergency, so anything goes. They should ask whether policies are effective, cost-effective and practically beneficial to the lives of their constituents. Do they create not just jobs, but rewarding careers in the new green economy? Do they improve the quality of life? Do they ensure the costs are allotted reasonably. At Policy Exchange, we proposed a carbon dividend, raised from a carbon tax and border adjustments, to ensure the poor don’t lose out from this agenda. But it’ll need an even broader approach to be effective.
If new MPs wave through bad policies, they’ll face a nasty backlash down the line and that will only delay the achievement of Net Zero. From this election on,
Benedict McAleenan is senior advisor for energy and environment at think tank Policy Exchange