David Edgerton believes that the Conservative party’s rejection of the goal of achieving net zero emissions shows a departure from traditional British capitalist values.
In 2023, Rishi Sunak’s most significant mistake and decision was delaying important steps towards achieving net zero. He pushed back the prohibition of petrol and diesel car sales and domestic boiler usage by two months, which coincided with the government’s approval for increased carbon extraction from the North Sea. This sparked criticism from capitalists, environmentalists, and even some members of the Conservative party. Many questioned his motives for this action.
There is perhaps some sense in his decision to slow down. If net zero by 2050 is the final target, then the means of getting there must be realistic. But as our climate becomes more inhospitable, affecting food imports, infrastructure and ultimately living standards, the goal must instead be to reduce global emissions as quickly as possible, not meet a distant date for net zero. Yes, realistic means to decarbonise the British economy are needed, but he has not provided them. On the contrary, he is willing away the means, as he admits they are lacking.
This delay is not due to actual efforts to reduce carbon emissions, but rather reflects the increasing influence of Faragism within the Conservative party. This party has shifted towards a hard-right ideology, similar to those seen in the US. Its main focus is on Brexit and the unrealistic ideas associated with it. Additionally, there is a growing emphasis on culture war and denial of human-caused climate change.
Net zero has become the new focal point, similar to Brussels. This is evident in the upcoming debate in the House of Commons on Monday, regarding the oil and gas bill. This bill will require the government to annually take action that they are already capable of and have already done, which is issuing new licenses for North Sea oil and gas production. Disguised with misleading statements about emissions and energy security, this bill is merely performative and is meant to appease the Faragists while also forcing Labour to make strategic changes. Once again, the Tories are setting their own agenda, purposely undermining any previous consensus on climate policy – much to the dismay of fellow Tories like Alok Sharma and Chris Skidmore who have shown concern for this issue.
The Conservative party primarily represents and caters to wealthy individuals who generate income from property ownership. Its supporters tend to be older and also have property. While it used to support British national capitalism and large corporations, it has since undermined its own foundation and no longer drives productive change. Its main goal is to shift resources from younger to older generations, from workers to those who generate income from property, and from the poor to the wealthy. This party favors landlords, property developers, and monopolies that extract resources. Despite criticism, it has been remarkably successful in achieving its objectives. It lacks the ability and interest to promote a successful, transformative, and environmentally-friendly form of capitalism and displays a limited understanding of modern capitalism’s dynamics.
Major parts of the global capitalist system have acknowledged the need to reduce carbon emissions. Large-scale investment initiatives are currently in progress, and it is necessary for governments to take corresponding measures to assist and supplement these efforts. This lack of support from UK-based capitalists for Sunak’s reversal on achieving net-zero emissions is telling. Those involved in the car industry require clear timelines for when the production of gasoline and diesel cars will be prohibited, and assurance that appropriate infrastructure will be in place to support the use of electric cars, as emphasized by car manufacturers and other industries.
This is not to say that the British government has not supported elements of decarbonisation. Such is the pressure generated by subsidies offered in the US, the EU and China, that even free-market Tories have already been forced to pour subsidies of various kinds into nuclear reactors, battery plants, car factories and steelworks (as well as subsidising oil companies).
Providing financial assistance to international corporations in order to maintain their presence in the UK does not constitute a consistent plan for industrial development that will effectively decrease carbon emissions. However, this policy does acknowledge that the idea of Britain being a leader in green technology is no longer feasible. It is not necessary to focus on producing new technology, but rather on establishing a national infrastructure that can supply affordable clean energy to the population.
A new perspective on the economy is necessary in order to successfully reduce carbon emissions, but the Labour party has not yet embraced this idea. The authors of the book “When Nothing Works: From Cost of Living to Foundational Liveability” argue that we need to rethink the foundational economy, or the everyday economy. Rather than focusing on unrealistically high economic growth, we should prioritize improving our political economy. This means moving away from simply hoping for technological advancements and entrepreneurship and instead taking action. We cannot approach decarbonisation as a simple green industrial revolution or rely solely on R&D programs and startup companies. It is a complex issue that requires a multi-dimensional analysis of the households that most of us live in. We must also consider whether relying on privately-owned and minimally regulated utilities that make large profits is the best approach.
Additionally, there will be limitations on certain aspects such as air travel subsidies, airport expansion, and the development of new oil and coal projects. This will call for a capable and imaginative government, as well as support and involvement from the public.
The Labour party has avoided addressing these issues, allowing the Conservative party to dictate the direction of politics. Their current promises seem to only focus on a overly optimistic plan to decarbonize electricity by 2030, instead of tackling the much costlier and ambitious task of overall decarbonization. They have been hesitant to consider the necessary actions and rally for political support. Decarbonization will require more than just referencing Biden’s economic policies, dreaming of British green technology being the best in the world, or easing regulations and reducing risk for investors.
David Edgerton holds the Hans Rausing Professorship in the field of science and technology history and is also a professor of modern British history at King’s College London.