Back when I began writing the recent issue of The Fleet Street Letter, net zero was gospel. Voice any doubts about it and you were an anti-scientific climate change denier.

Suddenly, in the space of a week, net zero became everyone’s favourite punching bag. The anti-net zero headlines sprouted across newspapers everywhere.

Quite frankly, I haven’t got a clue what changed in that timeframe. What happened to make everyone suddenly wake up and smell the roses (which consume carbon dioxide)?

Nigel Farage had his thoughts when I asked him, here.

Even the Guardian jumped on the anti-net-zero bandwagon last week:

The UK government will defy scientific doubts to place a massive bet on technology to capture and store carbon dioxide in undersea caverns, to enable an expansion of oil and gas in the North Sea.

Most ironic of all, the announcement was made at a nuclear fusion development facility in Oxford.

This scrambled and incohesive mess perfectly sums up the state of our energy policy. Announcing the expansion of oil and gas, which requires experimental offsetting technology, at an emissions-free power research site…

Most dodgy of all, as the net zero critics like to point out, carbon capture and storage (CCS) is a bit of a slight of hand.

You see, by assuming that CCS technology will be viable in the future, and by promising to use it when it is, you can assume your carbon emissions away and promise to sweep your carbon under the rug… or the seabed, in this case.

And we both know about political promises and assumptions, don’t we?

But there’s something rather concerning hidden behind all of this, which the Guardian failed to point out. What does CCS really imply about a net-zero economy?

Nothing good. But I better explain what CCS is first.

The net-zero secretary laid out the problem: “Unless you can explain how we can transition [to net zero] without oil and gas, we need oil and gas.”

But net zero means we don’t emit carbon. So, what gives?

Well, the “net” refers to the idea that we can capture and store carbon to offset any emissions that we can’t cut to zero.

CCS technology pulls carbon out of the air and puts it somewhere for safekeeping. The UK plans to put it under the seabed in caverns. Which might seem like a very resource- and energy-intensive process. And it will be.

The underlying challenge here is that the government is punting, in rather spectacular fashion, I might add, that an economic way to do an absolutely huge amount of CCS will be developed in the future. Because if it isn’t, we’ve got a very big problem.

We’ve committed to big expansions of oil and gas, without having a viable way to offset their use, yet. And so we just presume them into existence in the future.

Of course, it’s not about viable and non-viable. The outcomes won’t be that clear cut. It’s about the cost of CCS. And we don’t have a clue what that cost will be.

Think about it like this: if we must hit net zero, then every emission we cannot cut must be offset. The cost of offsetting will be some unknown amount in the future.

But what does this mean for our standard of living?

Well, pretty much everything we do all day emits carbon. Including breathing, although I doubt that’ll be part of the net-zero equation. Then again, if cow farts and burps are included…

Anyway, if almost everything we do emits carbon, and all our activities that emit carbon must be offset, and CCS is the marginal cost of offsetting carbon, then we have a simple cost-benefit analysis situation.

Every activity we do must be weighed. Is it worth the cost of offsetting the carbon it emits? Is the benefit we derive from that activity bigger than the cost of the carbon offset?

This type of thinking will mean a good chunk of our quality of life is going to be lopped off.

Not everything we want to do will be worth the emissions, once those emissions cost you something. Things that you are not willing to pay the price of offsetting the carbon for will no longer be worth doing.

This might not be a problem if we develop such a cheap form of CCS that pretty much all our activities are worth doing and offsetting. CCS and net zero will just mean a slightly higher cost of living.

But what if CCS costs are high? What if many of our day-to-day activities are not worth doing once you include the cost of offsetting their carbon in the equation?

How many cups of tea won’t be drunk?

How many children will go to school with slightly damp clothes because the dryer wasn’t worth running?

How many meals will be simplified to reduce using the electric hob?

How many holidays won’t be worth the cost of offsetting the flight?

How many homes will be colder in the winter to avoid running the heat pump?

The answer is that we don’t know, because we don’t know what the cost of CCS will be. All we know is that whatever the cost is will decide what standard of living you are permitted to have.

Of course, wealthy people value dryers and holidays more than those less well off. Wealthy people can afford to offset their activities….

But do you see how much of a punt we’re making, as a nation? On a technology that doesn’t improve our quality of life in any way, but which the government has mandated we must do.

It’s also a question of how this’ll be implemented. For example, if all electricity that emits carbon must be offset, that makes things which use power generic in the CCS cost/benefit equation. The price of electricity will be what factors in the cost of CCS and determines what we do and don’t do in our lives. The cost of electricity generally will go up, rather than the cost of specific emitting activities.

A smattering of individualised offset costs would be the opposite option. Forcing offsetting costs on petrol, meat, recreational horses, concrete and anything else that emits would connect the costs of CCS to those activities. Each one would have to be weighed up – is the benefit worth the CCS cost?

It’s going to be quite an administrative nightmare, isn’t it? And, given the diesel debacle, I’m not sure it’s going to work in any sense of the word anyway.

Indeed, I suspect that implementing net zero is going to be a debacle that incentivises some activities over others based on what is and isn’t included in the net zero equation, and how its carbon emissions are considered.

So, what we’re really talking about here is an indirect way to completely control the population by way of emissions estimates. Just as many people were tricked into diesel cars, people will be led down other garden paths… or worse paths.

Nick Hubble
Editor, Fortune & Freedom

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