In calling for a referendum on the UK’s net zero target, The Sunday Telegraph has reached a new extreme in its strident campaign against climate policies, writes Bob Ward.

According to a leading article published by The Sunday Telegraph on 23 July, ‘Britain needs a referendum on net zero’, which is the UK’s statutory target to end its contribution to global warming by reaching net zero emissions of greenhouse gases by 2050. Adhering to tradition, the newspaper’s lobbying position is characteristically based on inaccurate and misleading claims.

For instance, the article’s opening paragraph states: “Even by the standards of her dismal premiership, making net zero legally binding by 2050 must count among Theresa May’s very worst acts. The provision passed through Parliament with practically no debate. One of the most momentous political decisions in modern British history was nodded through with very little thought.”

This is, of course, utter nonsense. The Conservative Government tabled the amendment to the Climate Change Act (2008) on 12 June 2019. It was based on expert advice received from the statutory Committee on Climate Change, including two lengthy reports published on 2 May 2019. The amendment to the legislation was considered by the House of Lords and House of Commons Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments. It was debated in the House of Commons for almost one-and-a-half hours on 12 June 2019 and a further one-and-a-half hours on 24 June 2019. It was debated in the House of Lords for about two-and-a-half hours on 26 June 2019. The amendment came into force on 27 June 2019.

The newspaper also appears to forget that Boris Johnson won the General Election in December 2019 on a Conservative Party manifesto that promised: “We will lead the global fight against climate change by delivering on our world-leading target of Net Zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, as advised by the independent Committee on Climate Change.” It seems the editor, Allister Heath, wants to re-run the vote on net zero until he gets the result he wants.

The article also states: “By mandating net zero by an arbitrary date, by embracing bans and restrictions, by lavishing the green industry with subsidies, they are engaging in economic and societal destruction on an extraordinary scale.”

Let’s review this further slew of inaccurate and misleading statements.

The target of 2050 for achieving net zero is not “arbitrary” but is based on the expert advice of the statutory Committee on Climate Change contained in its report Net Zero: The UK’s contribution to stopping global warming, published in May 2019. That report stated: “A net-zero GHG [greenhouse gas] target for 2050 will deliver on the commitment that the UK made by signing the Paris Agreement. It is achievable with known technologies, alongside improvements in people’s lives, and within the expected economic cost that Parliament accepted when it legislated the existing 2050 target for an 80% reduction from 1990.”

It added: “A net-zero GHG target for 2050 would respond to the latest climate science and fully meet the UK’s obligations under the Paris Agreement:

  • It would constitute the UK’s ‘highest possible ambition’, as called for by Article 4 of the Paris Agreement. The Committee do not currently consider it credible to aim to reach net-zero emissions earlier than 2050.
  • It goes beyond the reduction needed globally to hold the expected rise in global average temperature to well below 2°C and beyond the Paris Agreement’s goal to achieve a balance between global sources and sinks of greenhouse gas emissions in the second half of the century.
  • If replicated across the world, and coupled with ambitious near-term reductions in emissions, it would deliver a greater than 50% chance of limiting the temperature increase to 1.5°C.” [Emphasis in original]

The Government had requested the report on net zero from the Committee on Climate Change following the publication in August 2018 of the special report on Global Warming of 1.5°C by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The IPCC had found: “In model pathways with no or limited overshoot of 1.5°C, global net anthropogenic CO2 emissions decline by about 45% from 2010 levels by 2030 (40–60% interquartile range), reaching net zero around 2050 (2045–2055 interquartile range).”

The Paris Agreement, which the UK ratified in November 2016, commits Parties to: “Holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, recognizing that this would significantly reduce the risks and impacts of climate change.”

These temperature thresholds were based on the Structured Expert Debate that Parties carried out with scientists in the two years leading up to the United Nations climate change summit in Paris in December 2015.

The claim that the 2050 net zero target is “arbitrary” is simply a clumsy attempt, therefore, by The Sunday Telegraph at myth-making.

Furthermore, there is no evidence to support the false claim that pursuit of the net zero policy is “engaging in economic and societal destruction on an extraordinary scale”. On the contrary, the Office for Budget Responsibility in its Fiscal risks and sustainability report of July 2023 concluded that “continued dependence on gas could be as expensive fiscally as completing the transition to net zero, were periodic upward spikes to global gas prices to continue to occur”.

The Sunday Telegraph’s article also includes false statements about specific policies and technologies to achieve net zero. For example, it asserts: “Heat pumps look likely to be the next scandal: an expensive technology totally inappropriate for many British homes.” This, too, is untrue. The report of the Electrification of Heat Demonstration Project, commissioned by the former Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, concluded in September 2022: “The project has not identified any particular type or age of property that cannot have a successful heat pump installation. The suggestion that there are particular home archetypes in Great Britain that are ‘unsuitable’ for heat pumps is not supported by the project data.”

In another inaccuracy, the newspaper states: “The 2030 deadline for banning new diesel and petrol cars is fast approaching, with no obvious effort being put into ensuring that there will be the charging infrastructure or electricity production capacity required to run them.” But this is to ignore the fact that the Government laid out detailed plans in March 2022, including its target of 300,000 public charging points by 2030, in the document Taking charge: the electric vehicle infrastructure strategy.

In addition, the National Grid points out on its website: “The most demand for electricity in recent years in the UK was for 62GW in 2002. Since then, the nation’s peak demand has fallen by roughly 16% due to improvements in energy efficiency. Even if we all switched to EVs [electric vehicles] overnight, we believe demand would only increase by around 10%. So we’d still be using less power as a nation than we did in 2002 and this is well within the range of manageable load fluctuation.”

The article also asks, “Where is the cost-benefit analysis of net zero by 2050?” – misleadingly implying this is lacking. In fact, many such analyses have been carried out. For instance, the Committee on Climate Change’s 2019 report on reaching net zero included a chapter on ‘Costs and benefits of a net-zero target for the UK’, which concluded: “Our central estimate for the resource costs of a more ambitious net-zero GHG target in 2050 are in line with the expected cost accepted by Parliament when the current target was set – an annual cost of between 1-2% of GDP in 2050. If innovation exceeds expectations again this cost could be lower.”

The Committee’s calculations were examined by the Office for Budget Responsibility in its Fiscal risks report of July 2021, which concluded: “The costs of failing to get climate change under control would be much larger than those of bringing emissions down to net zero.”

In all, The Sunday Telegraph’s article is a mixture of rhetoric and falsehoods that seem to have been copied from the propaganda circulated by extreme groups on the fringe of the UK political spectrum, including the Reform Party and the Global Warming Policy Foundation. What’s more, its position is completely out of step with most of the public. An opinion poll carried out by YouGov on 12 June 2023 found that 46% believed the UK Government was not doing or spending enough to tackle climate change, while only 22% thought it was doing or spending too much.

It is perhaps not surprising that newspaper has headed down this extreme path given its history of promoting climate change denial. However, it is also open to accusations of hypocrisy. The newspaper’s parent company, the Telegraph Media Group, boasts on its website that it is cutting its carbon dioxide emissions and that it has “joined the Advertising Association’s Ad Net Zero initiative, which sees a drive to reduce the carbon impact of UK advertising operations to net zero by 2030”. Being part of the Ad Net Zero initiative equates to joining an action plan that includes “avoiding misleading environmental claims and greenwashing”. The leading article in The Sunday Telegraph seems to be a blatant violation of this principle.

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