But however gloomy the message from the ex-business secretary – who is in charge of this autumn’s COP26 climate conference in Glasgow – Mr Sharma also knows that his Government has another serious problem.
How on earth will it meet its commitment to reach ‘net-zero’ carbon emissions by 2050? Be in no doubt: The Earth’s atmosphere is warming, and this has powerful consequences.
Average temperatures on the Earth’s surface, according to the IPCC, are up by between 0.8 and 1.3 Celsius since 1850. Sea levels have risen by an average of between 15 and 25cm (six to ten inches) since 1901. There is every reason to wean ourselves off fossil fuels and cut our carbon emissions.
A huge shift to electric cars (stock image) is planned, with new petrol and diesel vehicles banned from 2030
The trouble, however, is that the Government’s unilateral and legally binding commitment to net zero comes without any real idea of how it will be achieved or paid for.
A Treasury review of the costs of this immense undertaking has been delayed since the spring.
But, clearly, the move to decarbonise the economy of the first country in the world to carbonise in the first place will involve a social and economic shift unseen in our lifetimes – and it is ordinary people who are most at risk of being impoverished by it.
So what do we know? A huge shift to electric cars is planned, with new petrol and diesel vehicles banned from 2030. Polluting gas boilers are to be ripped out and replaced, in many cases, with electric heat pumps.
The country will also ramp up renewable energy, such as wind, and invest heavily in other technologies such as hydrogen power.
All these schemes come at huge expense. Electric cars typically cost about 50 per cent more than their petrol equivalents – while their often-limited range makes them impractical for longer journeys.
Polluting gas boilers are to be ripped out and replaced, in many cases, with electric heat pumps (pictured)
If they are adopted wholesale, electric cars will create a £20billion ‘hole’ in the public finances caused by the loss of fuel duty on petrol models. The Government, we can be sure, will want to plug this gap by taxing us in other areas.
Heat pumps can easily cost £10,000 to install; they cost far more to run than gas boilers and are also less effective at actually heating your home, particularly if your property is older.
Renewables, meanwhile, are hugely subsidised, causing fuel bills to rise. According to the energy regulator Ofgem, 23 per cent of British electricity bills now go on ‘environmental and social costs’.
To make all these matters worse, the Government is even considering plans to make it difficult to sell your home unless it is retrofitted with insulation – this alone can cost tens of thousands to install.
And those are just technologies we know about. John Kerry, Alok Sharma’s American equivalent, recently suggested that half the technology needed to reach net zero has yet to be invented.
We still have no idea whether it will be possible to fly long distances by some zero-emission plane that has yet to be designed. And if it isn’t, in a net-zero world that probably spells the end of cheap foreign travel for ordinary people. Heating our homes with hydrogen boilers, meanwhile, will work only if the hydrogen can be produced without causing carbon emissions.
The Government’s ‘heat and buildings strategy’, which was supposed to tell us how and when our gas boilers would be scrapped, has also been put off until the autumn. Pictured: ‘World’s first’ hydrogen-powered domestic boiler
It might one day be possible to do this commercially with electrolysis (using electricity to split water into oxygen and hydrogen atoms), but at present most hydrogen is produced from fossil fuels, which defeats the object. It all paints a deeply depressing picture – and it is not a conversation that our boosterish Prime Minister, who is never happier than when spending other people’s money, is prepared to have with us.
Ministers are said to be working on plans to achieve net zero without disproportionately hitting poorer families – not least because Boris Johnson is reliant for his majority on the so-called ‘Red Wall’ of northern seats.
But the Treasury has still not published its analysis of the costs of reaching net zero: An analysis we were promised in the spring.
The Government’s ‘heat and buildings strategy’, which was supposed to tell us how and when our gas boilers would be scrapped, has also been put off until the autumn. That we don’t yet have the technology to get to net zero explains why neither the US nor many other countries have so far followed Britain’s example and set themselves a legally binding target.
The Prime Minister is partly pinning his hopes on Britain becoming a leading manufacturer of heat pumps, leading to a ‘green jobs benefit to the UK’. But the idea that ending our use of fossil fuels is going to make us all richer is absurd.
The cheap, concentrated energy provided by coal – followed by gas and oil – was the basis of both the industrial revolution itself and the world’s resulting prosperity.
It is no use celebrating the creation of ‘green jobs’ in a wind-farm factory if we simultaneously lose many more jobs in manufacturing thanks to the higher cost of power.
So if Alok Sharma believes he can sweet-talk the rest of the world into legally committing itself to a path that is inevitably going to make people poorer, he is sure to be disappointed.
China, which accounts for 28 per cent of global carbon emissions and which has hundreds of gigawatts of coal-powered generating capacity, is not going to hamper its economy, whatever platitudes it might spout in November.
While Britain will phase out coal power by 2024, last year China alone brought 38 gigawatts of new coal power onstream, more than three times the amount built elsewhere around the world – and it has another 247 gigawatts in the planning.
So long as China is expanding its coal industry, anything Britain does to cut its global carbon emissions will be a proverbial puff of smoke, given we account for just 1 per cent of the planet’s total.
In any case, Britain is not nearly so far down the road of cutting emissions as the Government tries to make out.
‘Catastrophic’ was how Alok Sharma (pictured) described the findings in yesterday’s report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). ‘I don’t think there is any other word,’ he said
Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng claimed yesterday that Britain has cut its carbon emissions by 45 per cent compared with 1990 levels.
Yet that is only because the Government counts just ‘territorial emissions’ – ie those physically spewed out in Britain.
It ignores aviation, shipping and carbon emissions produced elsewhere in the world in growing food and making consumer goods for UK consumers.
Our emissions have fallen partly because we have exported a lot of our manufacturing industry – not least to China.
It is a fine ambition to try to persuade the world to slash its carbon emissions. But, in most countries – especially those, such as China and India, with huge and rapidly expanding middle classes – such a message will fall on deaf ears if it comes with a serious fall in living standards.
To reach net zero is an admirable goal, but on current technology will require enormous and very painful sacrifices. And despite the apocalyptic warnings of the IPCC, there is scant sign that the public, in Britain or elsewhere, is yet prepared to make them.
Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng (pictured) claimed yesterday that Britain has cut its carbon emissions by 45 per cent compared with 1990 levels