The gaping hole at the heart of net zero

By guest author Mallen Baker from Innovation Forum

While the move towards a net zero carbon world is welcome, there is developing momentum behind two opposing views on how to get there and what it will look like, argues Mallen Baker.

Caption courtesy by the Innovation Forum

The signs are growing that we are gradually moving towards a net zero carbon world. It’s gratifying to see for those of us old enough to recall the long years when it seemed a distant dream.

But there’s a problem. We currently have no settled vision of what a net zero world should even look like.

If you look beneath the surface of public debate, you may dimly discern the shape of two conflicting and distinctive visions. They do at least have two things in common. Both are built on a faith in some form of technocracy, and both have so far escaped any real scrutiny. Apart from that, they are diametrically opposed.

This was dramatically illustrated back in May, when the US climate change envoy John Kerry made headlines in his clash with the BBC’s Andrew Marr.

‘No meat’?

The BBC can rarely talk about climate change for more than 45 seconds these days without immediately swerving onto the topics of flying or meat, and so it was here. Wasn’t the brutal truth, Marr demanded, that the Biden administration would have to “tell Americans to eat less meat?”

John Kerry pushed back. Technological advances would help to produce meat with reduced impact, he said. And he promised that the US is “moving rapidly to reduce all of our emissions”.

And that was when Marr said this: “It sounds as if you are relying a lot on technology to sort all of this out, rather than changes in lifestyles.”

It’s a fascinating accusation, because although it might sound as though they’re having a technical discussion about how you achieve net zero, it’s clearly in reality a values discussion. For some, it’s as if net zero without significant lifestyle change is somehow inauthentic.

So what, really, do these different visions entail? What are the trade-offs, and what’s the case for them as a vision for the future? We don’t know because we’re apparently cruising on autopilot.

An easier sell

Kerry’s version of the technocratic solution to climate change has the benefit of being frictionless. It involves lots of technological change, but much of it out of sight. So long as the electricity is always on, you don’t much care how it was generated. In that sense, it would have one advantage – a greater chance you can sell it to the population.

Does he really think that it will be that easy? Probably not. There are huge obstacles. But realistically it’s the only vision the Biden administration can adopt – and that’s a reflection of its extraordinary impotence. American governments in these polarised times can’t get their agenda through a gridlocked Congress and that massively constrains their options.

So, Kerry has to promote his vision – that half the impact will be removed by “technologies not yet invented” – hoping that by the time it becomes evident that things won’t be quite so straightforward, enough momentum will have been created that the next steps will become inevitable even if they should require more sacrifice.

Hard line vision

But if that vision is flawed, the alternative promoted by the eco-hardliners is worse. The sort of people who devised the EAT/Lancet report with the prescribed global sustainable diet.

The idea appears to be that technocrats in power will design your lifestyle based on their expert assessment of what’s good for the planet, and you just have to resign yourself to the implications because, if you don’t, you’re “denying the science”. It has arguably become the go-to mindset after months of pandemic measures that have laid the path.

It is also not going to work. If the pandemic has shown us anything, it’s shown us how quickly the invocation that “we must follow the science” – with the assumption that it’s obvious and uncontroversial where that takes us in the detail of public policy – can be undermined by inevitably flawed execution and high-profile examples of “it’s one rule for them, and another for us”.

And that outcome is pretty much guaranteed. Because however much broadcasters may be ideologically captured by the lifestyle change/hard technocracy approach to climate change, they can’t resist amplifying any examples of top-level hypocrisy, however trivial.

We have seen across Europe and America on vaccines and lockdowns, substantial minorities have reacted against governments pushing them to take relatively short-lived action. The idea you can embrace a vision of sustainability that involves the whole community embracing a major lifestyle change does not survive that reality.

A third way?

Fortunately, if we approach this pragmatically, it doesn’t have to. Tony Blair’s think tank released a report recently pointing out that, in line with the UK’s Committee on Climate Change’s pathway for net zero, you’re really talking about relatively minor reductions in both meat eating (6 %) and flying (20 %). There is plenty of scope to achieve such adjustments within relatively benign mechanisms – the most controversial of which would still be relatively acceptable.

Values-based thinkers don’t react kindly to pragmatism, though.

For example, one prominent Extinction Rebellion activist responded to this report like this: “[Tony Blair] says we can get to zero emissions, with ‘minor’ reductions in driving/flying. Has Blair not slaughtered enough humans? Why give press coverage to advocate climate genocide?”

People who believe anything short of their radical vision constitutes “genocide” have little to offer the discussion, but they’re only the extreme end of how a lot of people intuitively approach this issue.

Our real problem is that poor quality political leadership has given no vision for a net zero world that makes the case for its own founding principles. Values discussions continue to disguise themselves as technical discussions, and we wonder why we can’t agree on anything.

Do our political leaders have a vision for net zero where they try to create a future where everyone can have what they value, whatever it may be?

Or do they have a vision that requires us to change as a society, and they can communicate the nature of that change, and why it takes us to a better place?

Public fears

The answer is that we are in a vision-free change process. We don’t know where we’re being led, and that leaves a lot of space for people to fill the vacuum with fears about it. And those fears mostly arise in the very large community of people who are not included in the technocratic revolution.

These are the people told that their jobs will be replaced by robots in due course. They are the people who “need” to be nudged, manipulated and – if that fails – legislated to fit the vision of the new moral life being designed for them.

Those are people who vote for populism because they fundamentally reject what seems an unattractive vision that is being crammed down on them.

By failing to treat them like people with agency, and neglecting to seek to persuade and sell them a vision of a net zero society that has people like them at its heart, we run the risk that they will simply withdraw their consent as the trade-offs become visible.

And, despite having argued for sustainable futures all my life, I might even join them. The road to dystopia is surely also paved with good intentions.