Written for the Telegraph
Will our lifestyles need to change radically to meet our net zero target? Must we abandon cars; give up flying; become vegetarians; turn our thermostats down; shun fast fashion and disposable goods? And could we persuade or compel people to adopt more frugal lifestyles? These are the crucial questions a Lords select committee set out to address in a report released today. The answer the committee discovered was surprising. So surprising that it decided to omit it from its report. Yes, you read that correctly.
The report deliberately omits the real answer to the question: “How much must lifestyle changes contribute to net zero?” – even though that was what our call for evidence asked for. What was the answer? And why did the Lords committee vote to omit it?
The answer was in the Sixth Carbon Budget proposed by the independent body advising the Government which says: “Around 10 per cent of the emissions saving in our Balanced Pathway in 2035 comes from changes that reduce demand for carbon-intensive activity. Particularly … an accelerated shift in diets away from meat and dairy products, reductions in waste, slower growth in flights and reductions in travel demand.”
Just 10 per cent from modest lifestyle changes. The other 90 per cent by industry and individuals adopting low carbon technologies and greater energy efficiency. To some of us, that is a relief. Conventional wisdom was that lifestyle changes would play a far bigger role in achieving net zero. We doubted the public appetite for this; were reluctant for government to engage in “nannying”; and feared it would massively curtail our freedoms.
Others relish the idea of leading us all back to a more frugal way of life. It appeals to puritans, to those who love bossing people about, and to eco-warriors who want to regress to a pre-industrial world. Doubtless, more frugal, healthy and active lifestyles would be good for our bodies and souls. But they should not be imposed on the pretence they are necessary for net zero. To admit that only 10 per cent of the reduction in emissions need come from lifestyle changes would shoot all these foxes. The committee wrestled with this inconvenient fact, initially omitting any figure at all from its summary and conclusions.
But we needed a figure to get a good headline. Officials were asked to find a number more impressive than 10 per cent. The report was already written, so this was Alice in Wonderland stuff – “Sentence first, evidence later”.
Shocking – but not unusual. As economist and historian of ideas Thomas Sowell explained: “Activists often get a good headline by lumping together rare but emotive events with frequent but banal ones.” He cited the headline: “Over 200 killed in bullfights and other sporting events.” In fact, only one matador died – other sports did the heavy lifting.
The committee decided to headline two big figures inflated by savings other than lifestyle changes – and voted not to mention that only 10 per cent was from lifestyle changes. The first figure is that 63 per cent of the required savings “relies on involvement of the public in some form”. Amazingly, this includes savings from industry deploying carbon capture – not mentioned in the report lest it give the game away.
The second, less outrageous, figure is that 32 per cent of emission reductions by 2035 “rely on decisions by individuals and households”. This lumps the adoption of new technologies – essentially electric cars and heat pumps – with the 10 per cent from lifestyle changes. These are important. But to describe them as “relying on individual decisions” is disingenuous, since buying fossil fuelled cars or boilers will be banned from 2030 and 2035. Moreover, far from requiring the more frugal, healthy lifestyles which the committee advocates, they enable us (once electricity is decarbonised) to drive and heat our homes as much as we like.
Challenged on this, some committee members claimed that problems of recharging electric cars and inadequacies of heat pumps, plus their high costs, will force lifestyle changes – fewer long journeys, chilly homes, negatives not mentioned in the report.
What are the lessons of this? My committee colleagues are impeccably honest. But in climate change policy, people who tell the truth, and nothing but the truth, don’t always tell the whole truth. They shield the public from inconvenient facts which might weaken their willingness to have their lives micro-managed by the state. That this is their aim is highlighted by the alarming recommendation that the Government apply the lessons of the (temporary) pandemic to impose (permanent) lifestyle changes.
Others keep quiet because discussing inconvenient truths risks them being labelled a “climate denier” and banned by the BBC. Having studied physics at Cambridge, I know the science of greenhouse warming by carbon dioxide is robust. Even so, that fate probably awaits me.