It’s always the chancellor, isn’t it? It was Gordon Brown who popped the Blair government’s early ambitions on sustainable transport. It was George Osborne who consistently pushed for fossil fuels over renewable energy. And this week we learn that Philip Hammond has written to the cabinet protesting that “the total cost of transitioning to a zero-carbon economy is likely to be well in excess of a trillion pounds”.
Deploying an apparently big number out of context like this is exactly the kind of thing that the Roslings warn about in their book Factfulness. “Never, ever leave a number all by itself” they write. “Never believe that one number on its own can be meaningful. If you are offered one number, always ask for at least one more.”
One trillion is an intimidating number – surely Britain can’t afford it! But between now and 2050, we are likely to spend over two trillion on the NHS and over three trillion on pensions.
To break it down a little, it’s more instructive to look at it per year. The Climate Change Committee estimates that net zero will cost Britain £50 billion a year, which isn’t far off what we spend on the military. The Business department have their own estimates and think net zero will cost £70 billion a year.
Let’s say it’s somewhere in the middle, at £60 billion annually. That’s what the British public spend on clothes every year. Will the chancellor also decry the total cost of fashion between now and 2050? Surely if we can spend £60 billion on clothes every year, we can stump up £70 billion to ensure the future of civilization?
But then, you use big numbers to scare people. You could frame exactly the same calculations in other ways. If you took that trillion pounds and expressed it as a percentage of GDP over 30 years, you’d end up with a single figure sum that everyone would assume was manageable.
Finally, consider that globally, banks have invested well over 1 trillion pounds in new fossil fuel projects just since the Paris talks in 2015. If we fail to transition to a green economy, it will not be because we don’t have enough money. It will be because too many people are betting that there is more profit in destroying the future than in protecting it.