• What if we cannot reach net zero?
  • But it’s the law that we must!
  • You cannot legislate against physics

While President Joe Biden pursues his Green New Deal in public, the US is quietly producing more oil than any country in history has ever done before. It’s not hard to guess why. Americans buy a lot of “gas” and they don’t much like inflation.

It’s not exactly surprising that a politician might be hypocritical, even when it comes to saving the planet. There’s a movie about that, funnily enough. It’s about a comet headed towards Earth, which the political class decides to ignore.

What worries me is that our politicians in the UK might actually fail to pull off the same hypocrisy for once. The only thing worse than a politician who reverses his election promise is a politician who gives the public what they think they want… (If you don’t agree, wait until next year.)

In the UK, the prospect of the government actually sticking to its climate change commitments is an especially concerning threat. You see, net zero is enshrined into law in a truly peculiar way here…

Net zero is not a target or aspiration, like ending poverty or the 2% inflation rate. Instead, the law allows interest groups to challenge government legislation and decisions that would be inconsistent with the legal requirement to reach net zero targets. In other words, the government can only make laws and policies in accordance with net zero targets.

This structure was first tested over the third runway at Heathrow Airport. Activists initially won the court case to stop the project by arguing that the climate impact of adding another runway was not appropriately considered by the government in its approval.

But they lost on appeal because the legal commitments to net zero were made after the runway was approved. Although the government had already committed itself to international agreements by then, it had not yet put them into UK law. The project escaped on a technicality, as is so often the case when the stakes are high enough…

What do you think this ruling means for investors looking to launch major projects in the UK? Their efforts now have to jump over the hurdle of net zero…

What if we applied this type of threshold to every decision the government will make in the future? It puts a serious number of our development plans in doubt. Can we build power stations, ports, train lines, pipelines or any other infrastructure given the amount of emissions involved?

In Norway, green campaigners actually won a similar court case against their government. The court ruled three gas fields approved in 2021 and 2023 should not have been because the climate impact of the energy to be produced hadn’t been properly considered by the Norwegian Energy Ministry.

Do you find it odd that governments supposedly committed to climate change, by law, are ignoring their own requirements and breaking their own laws? The cases highlight my point, though: the UK government has legislated itself into a corner it might struggle to get out of.

I’m getting more than a little worried about the prospect for a simple reason: green energy seems to be coming up short, to put it mildly.

The costs are blowing out, for a start. The European Commission’s latest draft estimates needing to spend €1.5 trillion a year between 2031 and 2050 to meet targets.

Even those attempting to sell renewable energy reckon their customers are delusional about the costs. The chairman of Siemens Energy, Britain’s biggest wind turbine manufacturer, said this: “Every transformation comes at a cost and every transformation is painful. And that’s something which the energy industry and the public sector – governments – don’t really want to hear.” There’s no doubt they’ve included it in their projections and models, though…

But a great deal of the cost remains highly uncertain. The Royal Society’s Sir Chris Llewellyn Smith has accused the UK Climate Change Committee’s CEO of admitting behind closed doors that estimates for how much energy storage the UK would need to cover periods without wind were a bit dodgy.

Conveniently, they used a year, which underestimated the challenge just a little bit:

In October 2021 The Sunday Telegraph revealed that assumptions underpinning the committee’s 2019 advice to ministers included a projection that in 2050 there would be just seven days on which wind turbines would produce less than 10 per cent of their potential electricity output. That compared to 30 such days in 2020, 33 in 2019 and 56 in 2018, according to analysis by Net Zero Watch, a campaign group.

Even with iffy assumptions, the technologies we are relying on are failing to live up to expectations. Electric vehicles don’t work when it’s cold. Interconnected grids only worsen supply challenges because the timing of winter tends to be highly correlated across the whole Northern Hemisphere…

In Australia, renewables campaigners are growing so desperate that their latest proposal is to put vast batteries on trains to help support the grid…

Things are so bad for the green movement that big insurance companies are even pulling out of former Bank of England Governor Mark Carney’s Net-Zero Insurance Alliance (NZIA). The NZIA requires members’ policies to be net zero by 2050, and the departure of major insurers implies that the companies want to underwrite projects that won’t comply.

Here’s the rub: should the transition to green energy leave us with a grid that cannot meet our needs, the government will be forced to look for more energy elsewhere. But the places it might choose to look will be precluded by the Climate Change Act.

I doubt the UK would be able to transition back to coal as Germany is, for example.

So, what happens if green energy doesn’t deliver and approving fossil fuel projects is illegal?

You cannot legislate for the impossible, but what happens if you try?

The Germans seem to be leading the way on that experiment. Energy instability leads to economic instability, which leads to political instability. And then, good luck…

There are two ways out of this mess. Either the Climate Change Act is repealed, allowing us to return to fossil fuels, which would renege on the UK’s international commitments under the Paris Agreement. Or we go nuclear in a very big way, like the French plan to. France abandoned renewable energy targets in favour of nuclear.

The consequences are already in the news, in this case at the Telegraph:

Britain imported a record amount of electricity from Europe last year as solar and wind farms struggled to generate sufficient energy in the wake of coal and nuclear power plant closures.

The UK forked out £3.5bn on electricity from France, Norway, Belgium and the Netherlands last year, accounting for 12pc of net supply, according to research from London Stock Exchange (LSEG) Power Research.

According to official data, France accounted for around £1.5bn of power sold to the UK in the year to November 2023 while Norway earned around £500m.

Not having enough nuclear is more expensive than having it…

If you don’t want to hear about any of this and still believe that nobody could be stupid enough to fail to plan our future energy system properly, don’t forget that the High Court ruled the government had done just that under Boris Johnson…

The Financial Times summarised the 2022 ruling like this: “The UK government’s plan for reaching net zero emissions was unlawful because it provided insufficient detail for how the target would be met, a judge ruled in a high-profile climate case on Monday.”

Why might the government not publish such a detailed and credible plan? Because then it would be exposed as dodgy, as Australia’s plan has.

What we face in the future is a failing energy grid and a legal barrier to providing a functional one in the UK.

What could possibly go wrong?

The real worry is that, just as it has taken many years for the folly of net zero to be exposed, it also takes decades to fix. New power stations are tough to bring online, even without silly government commitments and the threat of legal challenges.

We could be in for a decade or more of energy mayhem.

Until next time,

Nick Hubble
Editor, Fortune & Freedom