- Doing the right thing shouldn’t be defined by “What about China?”
- What if net zero policies increase global emissions?
- Ethics is a thorny question for economists
One week out and I’ve already found a crucial flaw in my book on the morbidly funny fate of net zero. It’s all got to do with me trying to get up on my high horse…
While there isn’t much that our green-tech expert James Allen and I can agree on, there’s one argument that Nigel Farage makes that always leaves me uncomfortable too. He likes to point out that much of the world isn’t going to cut its emissions to net-zero levels by 2050, and the UK’s comparatively small emissions wouldn’t make enough of a difference in the grand scheme of things. So, why should we sabotage our economy and living standards to try and cut a small chunk of global emissions?
The problem with this argument is the ethics. Surely the right thing to do is not defined by what others are doing instead? Surely, we should pursue what we consider to be right in the face of such misbehaviour from others?
At least, that’s how I try to live my life personally. But when it comes to net zero, the high horse is more of an ass, for a surprisingly long list of reasons… some of which are actually already in my book, ironically enough…
You see, when one country pursues net zero, but another does not, this does not happen in isolation. The most important lesson in economics is to ask: And then what? What are the unintended consequences? What are the “unseen” effects, as economist Frédéric Bastiat called them.
In the case of net zero, if one country makes it uneconomical to pursue certain economic activities because of its emissions, while another does not, what do you think will happen?
Here’s how my book tackled the question…
An interesting impact [of net zero] is the substitution effect. Not only is energy-intensive industry leaving the UK, the UK is also reliant on electricity imports, at least some of which are generated using resources that the UK has phased out, such as coal. This leaves us worse off several times over. Less secure, more emissions, more reliant on others, less GDP and paying others for something we could produce in the UK. It’s a lose/lose/lose/lose/lose policy.
It’s not just demand management (i.e. rationing) that’ll be imposed on us. Under the government’s net zero commitments, there is a perverse incentive for Britain to send its economy overseas, where that industry’s carbon emissions don’t count to the government’s net zero sum total, but does still pollute. Quite possibly it’ll pollute more overseas in places with poor environmental standards.
Indeed, according to Michael Kelly’s 2019 address to the Global Warming Policy Foundation, progress on emissions since the introduction of the Climate Change Act has not come from reducing them, but from moving them overseas. Instead of making and consuming things in the UK, using energy in the UK, we have shifted production and energy use to places like China. Where, of course, energy pollutes at a higher intensity.
How ironic that supposedly well-intentioned government net zero policies would in effect increase global carbon emissions. But most ridiculous of all, we then go on to blame the Chinese for this pollution – pollution in producing what we consume, but refuse to produce for ourselves because of concerns about emissions which would show up on our ledger instead of China’s…
But the point is that we are talking about the deindustrialisation of the UK and likely Europe given the energy and emissions. Challenges that net zero creates.
So, not only will the government be making things more expensive, or not available, it’ll also be offshoring the British economy.
As mentioned earlier, over the course of 2022 and 2023, the UK has experienced shortages of certain food items. A key cause for this shortage was a delay and curtailment in the domestic greenhouse growing season. Gas prices and shortages made it uneconomical to heat and pump CO2 into greenhouses. We can expect this greenhouse effect, as it were, to worsen under net zero. It will result in even more food imports.
If you agree that net zero will end up increasing pollution and making us poorer and more dependent, then no moral argument about doing the right thing in the face of others polluting holds up very well.
If emissions are a global problem, then cutting your national emissions by raising the global total is a bit counterproductive. Getting poorer in the process doesn’t even qualify as very good virtue signalling.
Of course, there’s always the chance that such consequences will be considered politically unacceptable, causing politicians to scramble for whatever energy source they can find at the last minute, which will lead them right back to coal, as Germany discovered…
So, it seems that environmentalists face a choice between using Chinese coal to manufacture their solar panels or British coal…
All this refers to another question that has troubled economics for a long time, and hints at why Adam Smith wrote The Theory of Moral Sentiments along with The Wealth of Nations: do policy intentions or their outcomes define what is ethical? And over what timeframe – the initial impact or the eventual equilibrium?
Just as countless other government policies backfire, perhaps net zero will too. Indeed, the environmental movement’s opposition to nuclear power already has in dramatic fashion.
Can you imagine a politician who runs on the platform of blaming environmentalists for our climate-change crisis? They undermined the only viable form of baseload, cost-efficient, on-demand, carbon-free energy, after all…
But don’t worry. Nuclear is coming back for good and that’s just one way we recommend that you could profit from net zero’s demise, as explained in my book.
Until next time,
Editor, Fortune & Freedom