Rethinking Net Zero

14 mins. to read
Rethinking Net Zero

A policy that melted in the heat

The Brown/Miliband-Cameron-May-Johnson era consensus on net zero is shrivelling before our eyes.

Last week I wrote that the German federal government is considering the recommissioning of mothballed, coal-fired power stations in view of the energy crisis. Here, one of the first decisions that the new prime minister will have to make in early September is whether to go ahead with a new coal mine in Whitehaven, Cumbria, to be operated by West Cumbria Mining. This will prospectively provide coking coal to Britain’s steel industry, which is currently dependent on imports. The UK imported 40 percent of its coking coal from Russia before the invasion of Ukraine. Currently, Tata Steel and Chinese-owned British Steel have found alternative supplies from the US and Canada.

Ministers have at last been reminded that we cannot build new energy plants without steel. But even if the new UK government gives the go-ahead for the Whitehaven mine, that could be subject to a legal challenge, which would possibly go to the High Court.

More doubts about the efficacy of biofuels

If you import trees to make woodchips to burn in power plants, don’t be surprised if you import pests too. The arrival of a devastating pine moth from France has prompted the government to step up checks on imported timber. The pine processionary moth strips pine and cedar trees of their needles, can kill striplings and can cause allergies in people and animals. Over the past 30 years, the UK has recorded the arrival of over 20 serious tree pests and diseases. More could arrive over the coming decade, according to University College London.

Anyone who has entered New Zealand in recent years will know that it takes biosecurity very seriously. Immigration officers are just as concerned about apple pips on your person as they are about narcotics. The UK, in its typically dilatory and relaxed way, has no such biosecurity policy.

It’s getting hotter – but don’t panic

Amidst all the hysteria arising from the July heatwave in England and Wales (schools closed for fear that children might be incinerated), one important recent study which might have changed public perceptions was overlooked.

Back in January, the ONS reported that climate change in England and Wales had led to half a million fewer deaths in England and Wales from cold weather between the years 2001 and 2020.

The fact is that extreme cold weather is a much greater cause of excess mortality than extreme hot weather, especially amongst the elderly. Although there tend to be more hospitalisations during heatwaves, there are relatively few excess deaths. A study in The Lancet in 2015, covering 384 locations in 13 countries, concluded that cold weather causes 17 times as many excess deaths as hot weather. Cold weather can trigger complications with respiratory and heart conditions. And during icy weather many elderly people slip and break bones.

Rising temperatures across the UK might also be beneficial for plant life. A company called One Life One Tree has planted more than 700 giant sequoias – natives of California and the highest-growing trees known to man – across the UK, including in the Brecon Beacons, Buckinghamshire and Hampshire. These trees, which absorb huge quantities of CO2 from the atmosphere as they grow, can flourish here, given the UK’s high levels of rainfall and moderate temperatures. Each sequoia is planted alongside three native British tree species to maintain biodiversity.

A single sequoia, growing to about 84 metres in height, could sequester huge quantities of CO2 in its first 100 years. Yet in California they are now threatened. They can withstand forest fires and even frosts of up to minus 30 degrees Celsius. Potatoes and tomatoes came from the Americas – so why not sequoias too?

That said, unplanned reforesting might be more harmful than sowing grassland. Minette Batters, president of the National Farmers’ Union observed last week that celebrities now salve their ‘carbon consciences’ by financing the planting of trees: any trees – anywhere. Ed Sheeran is planning to plant “as many trees as possible” on his Suffolk estate. Sir Elton John claimed that he had completely offset the emissions from his private jet when Harry and Meghan came to stay on the Côte d’Azur.

Yet planting trees on pasture deprives British farmers of their grazing grass. Livestock eat grass and then refertilise the soil with their dung, which is rich in nitrogen. The anti-meat activists ignore the fact that pasture sequesters CO2. Instead, they focus on the effects of grain-fed cattle – something much more common in the US and Australia than here. Batters has described the prevailing opinion that veganism will save the planet as “a corrupted conversation”. She thinks that the big food-processing companies see plant-based foods as an opportunity to make more money. Rishi Sunak, who does not eat beef, has pledged to support the livestock industry. He wants to outlaw selling agricultural land to developers for housing projects. I approve of that.

Many plant-based foods use Brazilian soya beans which are often grown on land obtained by clearing rainforest. Yet British-grown beans and pulses provide low-carbon sustainable proteins. Vegetable protein, Quorn, was first created in the 1980s and is now a leading vegan brand. Headquartered in Middlesborough, the company is owned by Monde Nissin Corporation of the Philippines.

Planting single-species woodlands – such as the Christmas-tree factories so favoured by the Forestry Commission – is harmful for soil quality and the biodiversity of flora and fauna. Much more thought needs to be given to what species mixes are optimal for reforestation projects.

British farmers get clever

The government has lifted a ban on muck-spreading this autumn as farmers are faced with rising prices for the essential ‘three Fs’ of farming – fertiliser, fuel and feedstock. To make things worse, farmers are suffering from a desperate shortage of labour. Manure is an organic, nitrogen-rich but chemical-free alternative to artificial fertiliser. Fertiliser production around the world itself generates huge CO2 emissions. The Environment Agency had previously argued that muck-spreading could contaminate the water table.

Researchers at the James Hutton Institute in Dundee have developed a technique to double the amount of vitamin C in a new breed of potato by editing its DNA. Henceforth, this breed might contain as much vitamin C as lemons do. Currently, gene-edited crops can be grown in England but are not yet permitted in Scotland and Wales by the devolved administrations. That is also the case in the EU. However, gene-edited crops will be part of the solution.

Even before global warming became orthodoxy, British farmers started to use greenhouses – yes – to raise the temperature in which crops grow. Then came hydroponic farms like the impressive Thanet Earth near Birchington, Kent. Yet we are still becoming more dependent on imports of food – as I have discussed extensively here. The UK now imports more than half of all mushrooms consumed, compared to just one fifth in 1990. My household is entirely self-sufficient in raspberries; I was shocked to learn that the country imports 70 percent of this tasty and vitamin-rich fruit.

Plants thrive on CO2. So, an increase in CO2 concentration in the atmosphere will lead to higher crop yields. According to the NFU, agriculture accounts for about 5.5 percent of Britain’s total CO2 emissions. That’s more than double the emissions caused by aviation, but not much more than emissions generated by computer and mobile-phone usage – at four percent, according to a recent report from Lancaster University, co-authored by climate guru Professor Mike Berners-Lee.

A judicial setback in the US

At the end of June, the US Supreme Court issued a ruling that limited the US president’s powers to impose carbon-emission restrictions across the 50 states. The US, at the federal level, has a target like the UK’s, to achieve zero net emissions of carbon dioxide by 2050. The court decided that that the US Environmental Protection Agency did not have the power under the Clean Air Act (1970), a federal anti-pollution law, to set rigid limits on emissions from coal-fired power plants. Coal accounts for approximately 20 percent of US electricity generation.

The ruling came about because coal miners, as well as several coal-mining states, including West Virginia, petitioned the Supreme Court. The attorney general of West Virginia, Patrick Morrisey, hailed the ruling as “a huge victory against Federal over-reach”.

When he was on the campaign trail in 2019, Joe Biden encountered a young female climate protester and reportedly told her: “Kiddo, look into my eyes. I guarantee you we’re going to end fossil fuels.” Then, he was the antithesis of the fossil-fuel-loving President Trump. Now, in the face of the Putin-manufactured, global energy crisis, he is rowing back on his green pledges.

During the 2020 election campaign, Biden suggested that he would like to see the use of coal and shale gas eliminated. Within hours of taking his chair in the Oval Office in January 2021, he banned new licences for shale-gas extraction on federal land and water. Further, he revoked the licence for the Keystone XL oil pipeline extension to Alberta, Canada. This pipeline currently runs from Houston, Texas to the Canadian border. At that time, at the height of the coronavirus pandemic, oil was trading at just $19 per barrel.

Just as in the UK, the liberal media in the US is incensed that the oil majors are generating sensational profits from pumping oil and gas. Inevitably, Biden has joined in the chorus of disapproval. Gas, ie petrol-at-the pump prices have soared since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine began. The cost of filling the tank of a typically capacious American car has risen from about $38 to about $60: “Exxon made more money than God last year”, the president intoned last week.

The year before Biden entered the White House, the US declared ‘Energy Independence Day’, when for the first time in modern history, it became a net exporter of energy. This was largely due to widescale hydraulic fracturing (fracking) in the country’s extensive shale fields such as the Permian Basin in Texas, which alone now produces 13 million barrels of oil per day.

As a result, as I explained last week, the US faces the current global energy crisis in a totally different position from Europe, which is dependent on Russian hydrocarbons. And last month the US Interior Department resumed auctions for fracking licences on federal land. Most senior officials in the Biden administration are now focused on the mid-term elections on 8 November – and high energy prices are a vote loser.

Water matters

This has been an exceptionally dry spring and summer across large swathes of England. In East Anglia where I live, there was hardly any rain at all in April and still less in July. Brown lawns everywhere testify to a serious drought. Hosepipe bans are now being rolled out from Hampshire to Kent. South East Water (50 percent owned by Utilities Trust of Australia) is just the latest water company to impose restrictions.

Paradoxically, one of the observed trends of climate change, as well as higher summer day temperatures and winter night temperatures, is that rainfall in the UK has been increasing. That said, there seems now to be a pattern of periods of intense rain – causing floods − interspersed with periods of drought. Clearly, there needs to be a policy of water management that can cope with these extremes. And yet, in contrast with the power sector, the water industry has received relatively little attention from either government or climate activists.

Water companies in the UK admit to losing about three billion litres of water per day due to leakage. South East Water is now blaming the heatwave for additional leakages – apparently pipes are more likely to crack in high temperatures. So, as demand for water increases, supply is reduced. This means that water has to be rationed. It means that CO2 emissions in the water industry are much higher than they need be.

In the UK and elsewhere we use drinking-quality water to flush our lavatories when ‘brown’ water would do the job just fine. Few people question this. But last week, a Mr Hutchinson of East Sussex wrote to the Daily Telegraph. He related that he had fitted a “rainwater-harvesting system” to his property some years ago. His water consumption was immediately reduced by 70 percent. He posed the question as to why all new-build properties don’t have such systems. Many of us use rainwater collected in water butts to irrigate the garden – but that is just the start.

Another example of poor management by water companies was exposed this week. A £250m desalination plant in Beckton, east London, which can convert seawater into drinking water, and which was opened by Prince Philip in 2010, is not operational. Thames Water was forced to admit that the plant will not be switched on until next year at the earliest. And yet the company assured regulators last January that the plant was “ready to go” in the event of drought, claiming it could provide drinking water for 400,000 households. It appears that the plant has been discreetly mothballed by Thames Water, given its high running costs. Thames Water, which serves 115 million people, reported profits of £488m last year.

Desalination plants are extremely energy intensive and are themselves likely to generate abundant CO2 emissions. The Thames Water facility claims to run on renewable energy – but this turns out to be recycled cooking oil from Chinese restaurants, which emits CO2 when burned. Such plants are used in the arid counties of the Arabian Gulf where energy has historically been cheap and water scarce. Using desalination in the UK looks like an admission of failure to me.

The UK water utilities are the best example of how Margaret Thatcher’s well-intentioned privatisation of Britain’s utilities went wrong. The power companies in this country do not supply electricity; rather they send out bills. The cables are all owned by the National Grid. The water companies became lazy, shareholder bureaucracies with notoriously poor customer service. The idea that there is competition in the water industry is delusional. They need a good shake-up. And why do we have so many of them? And what is the point of standing charges?

Whatever our water problems here, they are as nothing compared with many countries. The American Midwest has endured drought all year which is further pushing up grain prices. This week, Mexico was described by the New York Times as “a nation running out of water”. Two thirds of its municipalities face severe water shortages.

We have taken water for granted when it is in fact our most precious resource.

Net zero in a time of inflation

No previous inflationary tsunami comparable with this one has been defeated by negative, real interest rates. The idea that governments can just ride out the storm with only minor changes in economic or social policy is fanciful. David Cameron and George Osborne thought that monetary policy could save the day after the financial crisis – and, for a time, it worked. Then the central banks, with endless cheap money, created the conditions for the currently unfolding economic catastrophe. Finally, Putin lit the touchpaper.

Anyone who tells you that all we must do to “save the planet” is to commit to net-zero carbon by 2050 is being simplistic. The policy mix required to avoid ‘runaway’ climate change will be subtle and multilayered. But temperatures are going to rise – and there is some upside for people who live in temperate latitudes, as we do.

Unfortunately, the current generation of political leaders spends more time emoting on social media than thinking about the careful and politically sensitive trade-offs that we need to implement. We need to assure energy and food security; national defence security; political and economic liberty; and the free speech necessary for the continuation of rational scientific progress. But are our leaders up to the task?

The Bank of England economic outlook issued on Thursday (4 August) made for depressing reading. The bank envisages that recession will begin imminently and will last until 2024. The illustrious economic analyst Anatole Kaletsky thinks investors should now go into survival mode.

The simultaneous economic, energy and geopolitical crises will inevitably entail a collapse of state institutions in so-called advanced countries. This is already happening in the US (as I shall explore soon). The NHS – the only institution the British people collectively applaud (literally) − is about to fall into a black hole of its own making. The model has been flawed for years; and it is now drowning in its own dysfunction. It is also a massive emitter of CO2. There is no catch-all solution for this – but there will be huge consequences.

In such a challenging environment, it would be more useful to focus on fuel efficiency and the elimination of waste – including food waste − rather focusing on an abstract target which has become a mental straitjacket. If we must become as frugal as our grandparents were, that would not be a bad thing.


Despite the drought, the kitchen garden is thriving. There are French beans, courgettes, potatoes and brassicas. The raspberries are about to deliver a second crop. We have plums, greengages, damsons and blackberries. The baby apricot tree has fruited for the first time. The apples are mostly rotten again – they come from ancient trees −an old friend tells me I must learn the art of pollarding…

The swifts have returned to Africa. I miss their shrieks. But they’ll be back next year.

Listed or investible entities cited in this article which merit analysis:

  • Tata Steel Limited (NYSE:TATASTEEL)
  • Utilities Trust of Australia (open-ended, Australia-based infrastructure fund available to institutional investors only)
  • Monde Nissin Corporation (PHS:MONDE)

Comments (5)

  • Bob Mackintosh says:

    Many thanks Victor for a superb article – you continue to outdo yourself. But I do wonder what the average age of the reader of your blog is (I am 73). The banner needs to be taken up by the next generation.
    I too noticed that swifts had disappeared from the skies over where I live in Attleborough this week. They seem to leave their major gyrations to the early evening – and always seem to be mainly indulging in sport, despite the books saying that they are catching insects! The old books (1960’s vintage) also say that swifts are with us until September, but I always notice that they have gone sometime in August. There was some talk as to the drought this sumer having caused some migrant summer birds to leave early. Certainly shortage of drinking water must be a problem for them too!

  • Ian Basford says:

    I have often wondered how practical it would be to have a plumbing system where water from the sink ( washing your hands – brown water? ) was fed into the toilet cistern reducing consumption of clean water?
    Good article – I guess because it makes many of the points I agree with.

  • Paul says:

    I am so happy you are doing the garden and growing food.
    This is my first year in my allotment and my potatoes taste so wonderful,
    It’s so simple, grow food and also plant a few carefully chosen trees.
    This is my solution to the abstract utopian political dreams and desires of today’s age.
    Also I love investing in Gladestone land (LAND) .
    Now 40% organic American small farms, they seem well run.
    Recently adding vinyards and olive groves……what could be more simple or wonderful.
    The monthly dividend is also always satifying.
    Because I am so content to hold these shares, I have been continually making money trading them for the last 3 years.

  • Lawman says:

    Mr Hill: Can you please recommend a book, or published report, which gives a reasoned, scientific fact based analysis of the likely causes of global warming?

    I have looked but all books seem to be (1) Eco we are all doomed, or (2) It is a plot by the elite to give your money to the Eco lot. Is there no neutral view?

  • Bob Mackintosh says:

    An excellent request, but it is a very complex subject. I saw an article this week claiming that the recent undersea volcanic eruption near Tonga in the Pacific, which caused devastating tsunamis, also sent water vapour up into the stratosphere, which will cause a rise in global temperarures for several years. Water vapour is a far more serious absorber of earth-derived infra-red radiation (= greenhouse gas) than either CO2 or methane. I also wonder whether the recent high teperatures are partly due to a slight increase in the sun’s output. Certainly the sun has seemed very strong recently, when experienced shining in a clear blue sky with no cloud present at all.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *