By Charles Moore
As we gloomily contemplate our present discontents, we should be pleased to learn that, to the outside world, the Comprehensive Spending Review looks good.
In the past few days, I have spoken to several people from America and Australia who are studying it with forensic interest. In France, where the modest suggestion that people should retire at 62 rather than 60 seems to have caused national paralysis, those who worry about deficits look enviously at our apparent readiness to take our medicine.
What these observers admire is not so much the precise policy as the honesty. In their own countries, they feel starved of leaders who will truthfully set out the problem. In the United States, much of the inchoate rage in the mid-term elections is to do with the sense that neither political party will confront the dire state of the national finances.
To reach this condition of truth-telling, the Conservatives have had to move fast. Only a little more than two years ago, they were endorsing Gordon Brown’s figures and speaking of “sharing the proceeds of growth”. But “the truth”, as we are taught, “shall set you free”. By eventually accepting it, the Tories had the strength to convert their Liberal Democrat partners. This is another thing that impresses the outside world: two out of the three parties in the state are making the cuts. It would not make a great political slogan to say, “Almost two thirds of us are in this together”, but, in peacetime politics, that is about as good as it gets.
I should like to suggest that there is another, ahem, “inconvenient truth” which the Government must confront. Again, because of its earlier political positioning and the Coalition demands, it will not want to do so, but it will do well when it does.
In the carnage of the cuts, the Department of Energy and Climate Change does not feature prominently. True, the Severn barrage plan, a massive potential environmental disaster, was stopped. True, too – see the reduction of future payment levels to renewable energy in households through the Feed-In Tariff – that green largesse will not be quite what it was. But essentially, like a wind turbine on a still day, the Government’s energy policy is lying idle. Soon will come the storm.
It will come because of cost. Thanks to Gordon Brown’s profligacy, the public is about to have to pay more tax for fewer services. But the cost of green policies does not feature much in the latest debates, because most of it comes not through taxes, but through electricity bills. It is programmed to rise. This year, the total levy adds £6 billion to our household and business bills. In 2015, it will be £10 billion; in 2020, £16 billion (which equals 4 pence on the basic rate of income tax today).
For the Government, and the generators, this is a beautiful way of doing things, because they get their money effortlessly. So it is ugly for you and me. We pay for the renewable obligation subsidies, we fund the Feed-in Tariff. We pay more and more for sources of energy which will not reward us with cost reductions for at least a generation. For years, governments have gone on about the wickedness of “fuel poverty”. Today, 4.6 million households are officially defined as living in it. The prevailing policies make it inevitable that fuel poverty will rise for as far as the eye can see. By 2020, our energy prices will be between 30 and 40 per cent higher than they would have been without them.
At least two things result. One is that prosperity is impaired. Cheap energy is the prerequisite of industrial success. The figures for carbon production in the West are now mildly declining, but that is not true of our carbon consumption. All that is happening is that we are, in effect, exporting the production to China, proving, by doing so, that being green and clean does not pay. Global carbon production grows. The only important country where both the production and consumption of carbon slumped was Russia. That was because, in the 1990s, it suffered economic collapse. Economic collapse is, indeed, the answer to too much carbon, but in the same way that bubonic plague is the answer to the common cold.
The other result is that people get angry. They have been conscripted by their governments into an unwinnable war without end. The bills will rise, but the emissions will not fall. The country will not get cleaner, but its people will get poorer. There will come a point – provoked by power cuts, or by the bill for a cold winter – when we will be utterly sick of being ordered to save the planet, and we shall mutiny.
Politicians who want to stay in office should realise this, and take evasive action. Hard times provide the moment. In Spain the other day, the government realised that it was spending so much on price guarantees to solar power “entrepreneurs” that it decided to cut back. The same will have to happen with wind power here. It would be so much better, and cheaper, if it came before turbines have stalked their way across every lonely and lovely place in these islands.
The obvious objection to what I am saying is that we must save the planet. Of course we must, if it needs saving. But the great rows about the emails at the Climatic Research Unit, the evidence used by the working group of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and so on, have forced a retreat from the favourite claim that “the science is settled”. The Royal Society has long been alarmist about climate change, but its latest publication, Climate Change: A Summary of the Science, produced because of criticism about bias, is careful. It sets out areas where there is “wide agreement”, areas of “continuing debate and discussion” and “aspects that are not understood very well”. Although the authors clearly believe that climate change is real and risky, and is aggravated by human activity, they also emphasise uncertainties – about cause, effect, timing, modelling and the accuracy of data. In my admittedly untutored reading, it looks as if, by the Society’s own account, only about a third of the science is settled.
It seems a small proportion on which to erect the next half-century of policy, nearly £1 trillion of costs and the claim that the end of the world is nigh. In this country and the whole of the West, a strange thing has happened. A fascinating scientific theory about a controversial subject has been falsely magicked by its supporters into a hard fact. I know this Government dislikes spending money on logos, but the next time “The Department of Energy and Climate Change” orders new stationery, it should delete those last three contentious words which Gordon Brown added to the masthead.
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