Friday Fact Check: Boris Johnson Tells the Truth About Climate

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“The great unknown in climate debates has always been exactly how much voters are willing to bear in pursuit of reduced greenhouse-gas emissions. Mr. Johnson seems determined to force an answer.”

Oops, Boris Johnson Told the Truth About Climate
Joseph Sternberg, The Wall Street Journal, October 21, 2021

Voters are still in the dark about what they have to do to cut emissions. Finally a politician is telling them.

If Prime Minister Boris Johnson didn’t appear to believe so sincerely in the virtues of tackling climate change, you’d assume he was trying to sabotage the crusade against carbon-dioxide emissions. The bold plan he released this week for the U.K. to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 breaks the cardinal rule of climate activism: Never, ever, under any circumstances whatsoever, tell the public in one go how much they’ll have to pay and how much of their ordinary lives they’ll have to change to rein in emissions.

It’s not so much that this program is quantitatively different from climate-action agendas that other governments have implemented over the years. The British government admits it doesn’t know how much it will spend on the wide range of greenhouse-gas mitigations it proposes. But then neither does anyone else. No one has managed to total Germany’s spending on its long-running energy transition, although one credible guess pegged it at €120 billion for merely the five years leading up to 2018. U.S. Democrats resisted putting a price tag on their climate fever dream, the Green New Deal.

Rather, Mr. Johnson’s plan is qualitatively distinctive in foisting substantial changes on the section of the energy market voters notice most: the proverbial last mile between the national energy system and households.

The centerpiece of his plan is a program to replace home heating systems en masse, pushing homeowners to abandon gas-fired boilers in favor of green heat pumps with some subsidy but at considerable personal expense. There’s also a vague plan to tie preferential mortgage rates to green home improvements, and dozens of other promises (or threats) such as to increase the average occupancy per vehicle on British roads, presumably by encouraging more carpooling or use of buses and the like.

companion fiscal report from the British Treasury, meanwhile, explains in greater detail than anyone has before exactly how taxation will change in a green economy. Around £37 billion a year will have to be found to replace the fuel taxes that electric-car drivers no longer will pay. That amounts to roughly 1.5% of U.K. gross domestic product a year in lost revenue by the 2040s. This means either cuts on other spending items or alternative taxes such as road-usage charges.

Talk about an experiment. The great unknown in climate debates has always been exactly how much voters are willing to bear in pursuit of reduced greenhouse-gas emissions. Mr. Johnson seems determined to force an answer.

Voters at least in some places—think blue states in America—will tolerate expenditures of abstractly large quantities of taxpayer money to subsidize green energy production. Others in different places will grumble but bear a relatively modest additional amount tacked onto their household energy bills. And a fair number everywhere are willing to adopt modest behavior changes that have as much to do with virtue signaling as with the climate, such as buying more-efficient lightbulbs.

The political Rubicon has been asking households to do things that would make a bigger difference to carbon emissions but also would prove far more disruptive to daily life and the household budget. The transition to electric vehicles has been tackled gingerly, with carrots instead of sticks—generous tax incentives to buy a Tesla, rather than the sort of heavier fuel taxation that triggered the gilets jaunes protests in France when Emmanuel Macron was foolish enough to try it. Governments have tacked small levies onto household fuel bills to fund green priorities, but stopped short of meddling in the sort of heating unit a household might buy.

One consequence is that voters seem to have startlingly little idea about what they will have to do if they want to reduce their emissions. A recent YouGov survey is suggestive: British households understand they should walk or cycle instead of driving, although this isn’t actionable advice if you live outside an urban area. But they overestimate the carbon reductions they can achieve by shifting to an electric vehicle, and underestimate the reductions if they took a bus instead.

They wildly overestimate the carbon benefits of abandoning plastics, and underestimate the relative impact of Britons’ penchant for jetting off on vacations abroad. They also underestimate the carbon gains to be had from reducing the number of children per family—quite possibly because the idea of sacrificing one’s family, literally, for the climate is so preposterous it rarely features in these debates.

These perceptions have persisted because up to now politicians have been highly effective at creating the impression among voters that environmentalism is something someone somewhere else in the economy does. Mr. Johnson is starting to disabuse Britons of that notion with this week’s plan, and he may well discover there’s a reason few others have been willing to try.