Was this the week that ‘net zero’ suddenly shifted from being a largely abstract term to one that will play a central role in all of our lives?
On Thursday, the phrase was officially entered into the Oxford English Dictionary as achieving “an overall balance between the amount of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases produced and the amount removed from the atmosphere” in order to mitigate the effects of global warming.
The same day, the Prime Minister outlined the Government’s new plan to dramatically reduce greenhouse emissions to reach net zero by 2050. The proposals will change everything from the way we heat our homes to the food we eat, the holidays we take and how we travel.
And it will also cost an eye-watering sum – as much as £1.4 trillion, according to the Climate Change Committee, which advises the Government on its net-zero strategy. While the Treasury has admitted “it is not possible to forecast” how hard in the pocket its net-zero strategy will hit individual households, suffice to say we will all be footing the bill.
The Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) is concerned that greenhouse gas levies will hit poorer households the hardest. While the highest-income tenth of households has a carbon footprint on average three times larger than the lowest-income tenth of households, the spending of poorer households is more carbon-intensive, meaning they will be impacted disproportionately by taxes on heating, food or transport.
But, as was pointed out by ministers this week, the projected financial impact of “global inaction” is far higher.
Here, then, is a warts-and-all guide to exactly what going green will entail – and cost us.
Ministers are ending the sale of new petrol and diesel cars by 2030 and investing £620 million in grants for electric vehicles and street-charging points.
At present, the Government offers a £2,500 grant for electric vehicles that cost more than £35,000. Costs are coming down, but many remain far pricier than petrol or diesel alternatives. They are also considerably more expensive to insure – a Tesla Model 3, for example, which is the UK’s most popular battery electric car, is estimated to be 45 per cent more expensive than a comparable petrol car.
Professor Peter Wells, director of the Centre for Automotive Industry Research at Cardiff University, bought an electric Nissan LEAF for £12,000 two years ago and estimates it is now worth around £7,000. He says maintenance costs are significantly lower, although electric vehicles wear through tyres more quickly. While it costs an average of 4.3p per mile to charge at home, it can only manage a maximum of 155 miles on a single charge.
Range is improving – the aforementioned Tesla Model 3 now has a standard range of 267 miles – although charging capacity out on the road remains patchy, over-complicated and a lottery of different prices. “As soon as you go north of Cardiff, you begin to hit a charging desert,” he says.
Electric cars are cheaper to charge at home, and the RAC estimates that 18 million of Britain’s 27.6 million households have capacity to do so. However, concerns have been raised about homeowners ripping out front gardens to accommodate the cars, destroying vital wildlife habitat and raising local flood risk in the process.
According to Wells, the shift to electric needs to coincide with significant behavioural change in order to be a success in actually driving down emissions, with far less car ownership. The Government hopes half of all urban journeys will be taken by foot or bicycle by 2030.
“It is a mistake to think we can simply replicate our petrol and diesel fleet in electric and use our cars the way we do now,” he says. “That in itself is a significant policy failure.”
Drivers should also expect higher costs even before the transition to electric takes place. This week, the RAC warned that the rollout of a new greener B10 petrol (which contains 10 per cent ethanol) could help push prices up to record highs within days.
According to the Government’s new green agenda, builders will be banned from fitting conventional gas boilers in new homes by 2025. Ministers are also committed to the “ambition” of ending the sale of gas boilers in the UK from 2035.
Hydrogen boilers have been touted as one solution, although they remain in the prototype stage with concerns over supply. In the meantime, ministers are urging us all to get heat pumps fitted, with £5,000 grants available for people to switch (although only up to 90,000 households). Considering only 200,000 households are currently using heat pumps in Britain, this leaves a mammoth funding blackhole. As The Telegraph reported on Thursday, not a single Cabinet minister currently owns one.
There are two types of heat pump: ground source and air source. According to the Energy Saving Trust, the former costs anywhere between £20,000 and £30,000 to install and while more efficient, requires significant work digging either trenches or boreholes to install.
An air source heat pump currently costs between £8,000 and £14,000 and resembles an air conditioning unit fitted to the side of your house. However, they only work in properly insulated homes, a serious problem in Britain, which has some of the oldest and leakiest housing stock in Europe. According to the Energy Saving Trust, it costs up to £8,200 to fully insulate the interior walls of an average three-bed semi, while recent estimates suggest up to 25 million homes will not reach industry insulation requirements by 2050.
The Government’s Behavioural Insights team (known in Whitehall as the ‘Nudge Unit’) has touted the imposition of a “meat tax”, raising prices on red meat and dairy to encourage a more sustainable diet; meat accounts for almost 60 per cent of all greenhouse gases from food production. This is part of a two-pronged approach that will also aim to increase the availability of plant-based food, making it the “sustainable default” for school pupils and students.
There are obvious health and societal benefits in eating seasonally, locally and limiting the amount of meat and dairy in our diets. But Tim Laing, a former Lancashire hill farmer who is now professor of food policy at City University, argues the Government isn’t being honest about the significant costs that will be imposed on households in order to eat greener. “If you are on a low income, it is very difficult to eat a more plant-based diet,” he says. “There will have to be a lot of help in this transition.”
During its 2019 election manifesto, the Government promised to introduce a deposit return scheme to incentivise people to recycle plastic and glass. It has also pledged to introduce a standardised approach where green waste, food waste and tougher-to-recycle plastics – from single-use polyethylene plastic bags to the pump mechanisms in bottled lotion dispensers – will be collected from every home across the country.
Meanwhile, new levies, such as the Extended Producer Responsibility for Packaging, which will be introduced in 2024, will also dramatically reduce the waste that supermarkets and retailers currently create.
Helen Bird, strategic technical manager at the waste charity WRAP, welcomes the changes but warns that the cost will, again, fall on consumers. “We are talking millions and millions of pounds on businesses to meet those obligations and I think it is inevitable some of those costs will have to be passed to the consumer,” she says.
According to the British Retail Consortium, the UK retail industry currently has an annual carbon footprint in excess of 200 million tonnes – higher than all UK households and road transport.
The BRC has recently published a roadmap for action with the ambition of reaching net zero by 2040. Much of this will be through low-carbon logistics and sustainable sourcing, but expect “going to the shops” itself to soon be a very different experience.
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— The British Retail Consortium (@the_brc) October 4, 2021
We will be expected to bring an array of empty tubs and cartons to fill up at the supermarket, while high street fashion labels such as H&M are increasingly trialling repair shops where customers can bring in old garments for recycling, rather than merely buying new ones.
Tom Holder, spokesman for the BRC, says more onus will be put on retailers to recycle electrical goods and unwanted garments, that renting clothing and household goods will be increasingly common, while repair shops and second-hand markets will become a fixture of the high street.
The international travel industry is responsible for a whopping eight per cent of global emissions, and there is little in the net-zero strategy about how to bring this down.
The Government is hoping developments in biofuels, hydrogen and electric planes will allow us to keep flying, but these remain largely untested technologies at scale.
In recent days, an aviation tax has been mooted, focusing on frequent flyers. In the UK, 70 per cent of flights are made by the richest 15 per cent of the population, with 57 per cent not flying abroad at all.
Dr Milena Fuchs, associate professor in sustainability, economics and low carbon transitions at Leeds University, says so-called carbon offsetting in which flyers pay money – in reality, a few pounds – towards carbon capture or tree-planting schemes remain unproven in the extent to which they actually reduce emissions.
Unless new technologies are rapidly advanced, it seems to meet net zero, staycations are here to stay. “The unpalatable truth,” she says, “is we really have to fly less or at least not allow aviation to increase as it has done.”