Illustration by Harry Tennant

Church of hot air

The lukewarmers have a new bible: Ross Clark’s Not Zero. To what extent should we take their creed seriously?
May 10, 2023
Not Zero: How an Irrational Target Will Impoverish You, Help China (and Won’t Save the Planet)
Ross Clark (RRP: £20)
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When Nigel Lawson died in April, most obituaries of the former chancellor found space to note his recent lobbying on climate change. In 2009, he founded the Global Warming Policy Foundation to campaign against policies that tackled climate change by cutting emissions of greenhouse gases from fossil fuel use.

Lawson first laid out his “scepticism” about climate science in a 2006 paper, “An Appeal to Reason”, for the Centre for Policy Studies, a Thatcherite thinktank. This paper was subsequently extended into a book. He grudgingly accepted the physics of the greenhouse effect—that growing levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere heat the Earth—but claimed that human societies could simply adapt to lessen the impacts. Climate scientists and campaigners, he suggested, could undermine living standards with their efforts to replace oil, coal and natural gas with renewable power and other alternative technologies.

This “lukewarmer” doctrine lives on in the columns of Britain’s right-wing periodicals, as well as in a new book by Ross Clark, Not Zero: How an Irrational Target Will Impoverish You, Help China (and Won’t Even Save the Planet).

Clark is the go-to journalist for the comment desks of conservative newspapers seeking to downplay climate change. His book is an extended polemic that recycles the arguments put forward by Lawson 15 years ago, and indeed draws on some of the propaganda produced by the foundation’s lobbying arm, the Global Warming Policy Forum.

For instance, in one of his many attacks on renewable energy, Clark cites a press release from the forum that claims new solar farms under construction or at the planning stage could cover 150,000 acres of farmland. He warns us several times in the book that these installations of solar panels could occupy prime farmland and hence undermine Britain’s food security.

This is plain nonsense. Even if this figure is correct, that area is tiny, equivalent to less than 0.4 per cent of the UK’s agricultural land, and less than half the space occupied by golf courses. In any case, solar farms can also be used for crops or grazing by livestock.

The book contains many such numbers that seem to have been cherrypicked or misconstrued to fit Clark’s thesis, and so cannot be taken at face value. In another example, he attacks a calculation by the non-departmental public body the Climate Change Committee that almost two-thirds of households in the UK can significantly improve the energy efficiency of their homes for about £1,000. Clark presents his own estimate of a representative sum, adding the costs of insulating solid walls and of installing an air source heat pump to reach a figure of more than £15,000. But the committee’s figures did not include heating, and only 29 per cent of the UK’s 29.8m homes have solid walls, while everybody else could potentially benefit from cavity wall insulation for about £1,000.

The book contains many numbers that seem to have been cherrypicked or misconstrued to fit Clark’s thesis

In his critique of electric cars, Clark focuses on the challenge of driving in cold weather for 440 miles from Cambridgeshire to the Scottish Highlands with a full load of passengers and luggage. He is right that electric vehicles at the low end of the market can have ranges of less than 100 miles under such conditions, and that the charging infrastructure is far from adequate, but most car journeys are much shorter and less burdened.

The biggest flaw in Clark’s book is his central argument that the UK’s legal target to reach net zero emissions of greenhouse gases by 2050 is arbitrary. He devotes a chapter to a revisionist account of the relevant science, including selective quotes from the assessments of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). He accepts that some extreme weather events, such as heatwaves and heavy rainfall, are becoming more common in the UK and elsewhere, but he is willing only to consider data for past trends and refuses to take into account  any estimates of future impacts that require the use of computer models. His overall conclusion is that “there is nothing coming that will be beyond our ability to cope”.

Predictably, Clark ignores the IPCC’s 2018 special report, which laid out very carefully the scientific evidence that large potential impacts could occur if global warming exceeds 1.5°C. It also showed that, to have an even chance of staying within that temperature threshold, global emissions of carbon dioxide will need to reach net zero by 2050. It is this authoritative and robust assessment that prompted the Climate Change Committee to recommend a strengthening of the 2008 Climate Change Act, with the target of net zero emissions by 2050. It is simply not right for Clark to claim it is “arbitrary”.

His selective presentation of the science reflects the fact that he wants to downgrade the target to an “aspiration”, but it is evident that he has not talked to businesses who fear that weakening it will only add to costs by creating additional policy risk. Clark fails to acknowledge that it would only take secondary legislation to amend the target if it proves inappropriate in the future, so its current statutory status is not the threat he suggests it is.

It is fair to say that the book is more polemical than analytical, despite the peppering of numbers in the text. With little regard for many accepted facts, the author exercises the freedom to make his own predictions about future technological progress. He dismisses wind and solar as being unaffordable because he thinks large-scale energy storage will remain prohibitively expensive. Instead, he pins his hopes on nuclear fusion, a technology that has not yet been proven viable outside a laboratory.

As with most opponents of net zero policies, he believes that the UK has vast potential reserves of shale gas that could have saved us from the present energy price crisis. He cites a figure from the website of the British Geological Survey, 140 trillion cubic feet, which “would be enough to feed current demand for gas for 47 years”. However, if he had checked more carefully the scientific paper that provided this estimate, he would have discovered that it is for potential gas in place, and the authors expect 10 per cent at most to be economically viable for extraction.

With little regard for many accepted facts, the author exercises the freedom to make his own predictions about future technological progress

While much of Clark’s book is open to challenge, he makes some insightful observations. He is correct that there is a mess of current policies for adapting to those impacts of climate change that cannot now be avoided. Much more needs to be invested, for instance, in defences to protect properties along rivers and coastlines. We should stop granting planning permission for new homes in areas of high flood risk. These are all points that the Climate Change Committee has made in the past few months.

And Clark rightly draws attention to the fact that, at the moment, reporting excludes emissions resulting from the manufacture of our imports. This practice of only counting emissions within the UK’s territory does at least give us direct opportunities to abate them. Nevertheless, we should also explore ways of incentivising imports of zero-carbon goods and services. Clark also endorses a sensible recommendation by the Climate Change Committee that the UK’s official emissions figures should include our contribution to international aviation and shipping.

Notwithstanding these rare pieces of useful advice, Clark’s book is further confirmation that the fringes of British conservatism are stuck in an intellectual cul-de-sac, unable to accept fully the science and economics of climate change for fear that it threatens a rigid adherence to free-market fundamentalism.