“Example is the school of mankind, and they will learn at no other.” This timeless wisdom was articulated by Edmund Burke, a famous philosopher, a member of the House of Commons for many years in the mid- and late-18th century, and often described as a “father of conservatism.”
British energy policies since 2008 — the year that Parliament enacted an 80% “decarbonization” policy into law — would have proven vastly less destructive had the MPs borne in mind two central conservative truths:
Government officials know far less than they imagine, and policy initiatives attempting to effect huge changes in economic and social conditions engender hugely adverse consequences unforeseen by government planners.
In a magnificent new study of British climate policy, “The Folly of Climate Leadership: Net Zero and Britain’s Disastrous Energy Policies” — an apt title indeed — Rupert Darwall, Senior Fellow at the RealClear Foundation, notes that “in 2019, the target was raised to the elimination of 100% of net emissions by 2050 and became law after an 88-minute debate in the House of Commons.”
Andy Puzder in the Foreword to Darwall’s study summarizes some of the findings as follows:
The results have been a disaster. Even before the recent surge in energy costs, in 2020 Britons were paying about 75% more for electricity than Americans; and during the energy crisis in 2022, electricity rates for British businesses were more than double the average paid by US businesses.
High and rising energy costs have locked Britain into economic decline. British politicians’ boasts of climate leadership by cutting greenhouse gas emissions faster than any other major economy ignore the unfortunate fact that the British economy has been stagnating since 2008.
This luxury net zero policy, which only the rich can afford, has been devastating for ordinary Britons just trying to heat their homes and get to work.
And for what? In 2022, greenhouse gas emissions for the entire United Kingdom were 0.79% of the global total (on a CO2-equivalent basis). Suppose that the UK were to achieve net zero GHG emissions immediately and permanently.
If we apply the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency climate model under a set of assumptions that exaggerate the climate effects of reduced GHG emissions, net-zero emissions by the UK would reduce global temperatures in the year 2100 by 0.011°C. (That is one-tenth the standard deviation of the surface temperature record, and thus would not be detectable.)
If instead we apply assumptions far more consistent with the various findings reported in the peer-reviewed literature, the year 2100 temperature effect of net-zero emissions by the UK would be 0.0065°C. (The analogous numbers for the Biden administration net-zero policies: 0.173°C and 0.104°C.)
Darwall — vastly more courteous than I — in his study does not ask whether any British official favoring these policies bothered to address so obvious a benefit/cost question.
Of course, they didn’t, because the answer would have destroyed the political viability of the decarbonization policies.
U.S. policymakers have a good deal to learn from the fiasco that is British climate and energy policies.
No column can do Darwall’s study justice, but it is essential reading for anyone interested in going beyond the ubiquitous propaganda characterizing the mainstream assertions about climate and energy matters.
Darwall demonstrates several central realities. The decarbonization policy since 2008 has reduced British economic growth sharply — the lowest in peacetime since 1780 — and that decline accounts for a substantial part of the reduction in GHG emissions.
The electricity sector in particular has been politicized, with central planning yielding higher costs, less reliability, and policy reversals as various initiatives conflicted sharply.
Prime Ministers and other top officials — not renowned for their expertise in such matters — were bamboozled by planners promoting deeply dubious cost estimates and climate “science” assertions utterly unsupported by the evidence.
Darwall offers much more. The policies designed to “power past coal” — to replace coal-fired power generation with natural gas — increased costs sharply and reduced reliability, in part because the planners did not foresee the Russian invasion of Ukraine and its attendant effects on energy markets. Who can be surprised?
Markets, on the other hand, understand that unforeseen events happen, even if the precise details are difficult to predict in advance.
The sharp increase in power costs, unsurprising to anyone except government officials, has yielded a decline in electricity consumption exceeded by the reduction in generation, as the lower prices available overseas led to an increase in power imports.
Thus has a massive amount of the value of capital investment in the British electricity sector been destroyed, even as the reduction in power consumption has proven, predictably, to drive a decline in economic growth.
Earth to the planners: Industries do not consume electricity because doing so is amusing.
Is the Biden administration paying attention? Obviously not, as the massive regulatory effort to transform the U.S. economy is accelerating, hindered only by some judicial decisions and the adverse politics of rising energy costs, which is why the Biden regulatory policies have never been enacted by Congress.
It is no accident, as Pravda in its glory days would have put it, that electricity prices in California — the “leader” in the promulgation of policies driven by climate hysteria — are the highest in the lower forty-eight states, and over 80% higher than the U.S. average.
Darwall’s study tells us in excruciating detail where we are headed, but one wonders if the Biden administration has deluded itself into a belief that American know-how will make our central planning work better than the British variety.
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