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Labour is right to reject Sadiq Khan’s eco-austerity

Bring on the green growth? Credit: Getty

July 23, 2023 - 6:30pm

The Conservative Party’s unexpected victory in the Uxbridge by-election last week, perceived as a referendum on Sadiq Khan’s expanded Ulez zone, highlights a political law obvious to everyone but the London Mayor: in a democratic society, no one votes to make themselves poorer. 

For Rishi Sunak, the result offers a means to recover electoral ground, by campaigning against the same Net Zero policies Boris Johnson airily introduced. For Keir Starmer, publicly dressing down Khan, the result may lead to a screeching halt on the ambitious Green Growth plans his party has floated (and already watered down). But beyond British politics, Labour’s panicked response to Uxbridge highlights the central, increasingly rancorous debate within climate politics: between pursuing green growth through massive investment in decarbonisation, or strangling consumption through eco-austerity.

For Green Growth advocates, like the ecomodernists Matt Huber and Leigh Phillips, an economy decoupled from carbon consumption will lead to an era of mass abundance. As the economist Robert Pollin calculates, committing around 1.5% of global GDP towards decarbonisation will cut emissions by 40% within 20 years “while also supporting rising living standards and expanding job opportunities”, through total replacement of the world’s infrastructure. For degrowth enthusiasts, like the economists Jason Hickel and Giorgos Kallis, pursuing green GDP growth will accelerate resource depletion as consumption grows to match the newly unlocked energy resources — even if carbon-neutral infrastructure can be rolled out before catastrophic climate change.

Yet the heated debate obscures an essential similarity between the two opposing worldviews. Both require a colossal degree of investment in new, low-carbon infrastructure: they only diverge on how the economy is to be run once decarbonisation is achieved. The ironic result is that, in its initial decades, even planned degrowth would likely lead to an unintended GDP boom comparable to the Industrial Revolution. 

The scale of the necessary investment is staggering. To decarbonise the EU’s economy by 2050, McKinsey suggests, would require €28 trillion spending, or €933 billion per year: to achieve this much industrial production without causing GDP growth stretches credulity. As the Green Keynesian economist J.W. Mason observes, “if we face a political conflict involving climate and growth, it is not because decarbonisation requires accepting a lower level of growth, but because it entails faster economic growth than existing institutions can handle.”

Achieving decarbonisation through massive economic growth is a vastly more appealing electoral strategy than Khan’s eco-austerity, and a targeted approach — like the Biden administration’s direction of investment towards Republican states — would help assuage voter fears. Climate sceptics would welcome the economic boom caused by total infrastructure replacement, even if they doubted the rationale. Yet as so often in Britain, we are offered all stick and no carrot: just as Johnson committed Britain to phasing out fossil fuels without bothering to build the necessary infrastructure, Khan’s adoption of rationing and direct taxation lowers living standards without first offering an improved alternative. 

Instead, Starmer should ride the tiger, committing Britain to massive state-directed investment in decarbonisation, boosting individual prosperity and — for a while — consumption before phasing out fossil fuels. Rather than taxing petrol cars, Labour should heavily subsidise British-made electric vehicles, while rolling out expanded, cheap or even free public transport to wean Britons off the roads. British voters would experience a massive housebuilding programme of new, cosy homes heated by a nuclear-powered electric grid as a gift, rather than a penalty. The only plausible way to hit Net Zero targets is to dramatically raise living standards first, providing a smooth and comfortable off-ramp to the new economy. Instead of raiding ordinary voters’ wallets, Starmer should stuff their mouths with gold.


Aris Roussinos is an UnHerd columnist and a former war reporter.

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Marcus Leach
Marcus Leach
11 months ago

What happened in the Uxbridge by-election was that, when faced with the direct costs of green policy, voters baulked and voted against it.
The exact same thing as happened in Uxbridge will happen accross the globe to political parties who pursue Net Zero, and inflict its enormous costs on the public. The rise ofparties opposed to destructive green policy is already happening in the Netherlands, Germany, Spain and elsewhere, and this will only accelerate.
First past the post and the collusion between the major parties in Britain will probably keep the Net Zero folly going on for longer than under the PR systems of Europe, but the folly will end simply because we will be one of the few idiot nations continuing with it and the pointlessness of continuing will be undeniable.
John Kerry visited China last week to persuade them to speed up on carbon reductions. They sent him away with a flea in his ear, telling him that China decides what’s best for it. China, just like India, Africa and other developing nations will not be following our lead in to economic self–destruction; they will be taking advantage of it.
Massive economic growth by going Net Zero? Maybe for China where all the solar panels and EVs will be made, or India where all our industries will disappear to. Economic growth that comes from spending hundreds of billions, if not trillions of taxpayers’ money on replacing the current funtioning system with an inferior one is idiotic, especially when it will prove utterly futile when Net Zero is rejected by voters and governments across the world.

Last edited 11 months ago by Marcus Leach
new aether
new aether
11 months ago
Reply to  Marcus Leach

so what do you think will happen if we abandon these plans?

new aether
new aether
11 months ago
Reply to  Marcus Leach

so what do you think will happen if we abandon these plans?

Marcus Leach
Marcus Leach
11 months ago

What happened in the Uxbridge by-election was that, when faced with the direct costs of green policy, voters baulked and voted against it.
The exact same thing as happened in Uxbridge will happen accross the globe to political parties who pursue Net Zero, and inflict its enormous costs on the public. The rise ofparties opposed to destructive green policy is already happening in the Netherlands, Germany, Spain and elsewhere, and this will only accelerate.
First past the post and the collusion between the major parties in Britain will probably keep the Net Zero folly going on for longer than under the PR systems of Europe, but the folly will end simply because we will be one of the few idiot nations continuing with it and the pointlessness of continuing will be undeniable.
John Kerry visited China last week to persuade them to speed up on carbon reductions. They sent him away with a flea in his ear, telling him that China decides what’s best for it. China, just like India, Africa and other developing nations will not be following our lead in to economic self–destruction; they will be taking advantage of it.
Massive economic growth by going Net Zero? Maybe for China where all the solar panels and EVs will be made, or India where all our industries will disappear to. Economic growth that comes from spending hundreds of billions, if not trillions of taxpayers’ money on replacing the current funtioning system with an inferior one is idiotic, especially when it will prove utterly futile when Net Zero is rejected by voters and governments across the world.

Last edited 11 months ago by Marcus Leach
Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
11 months ago

If you’re serious about decarbonization, build nuclear. It should not be this difficult. Makes me think they’re really not serious about addressing the issue.

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
11 months ago

If you’re serious about decarbonization, build nuclear. It should not be this difficult. Makes me think they’re really not serious about addressing the issue.

Prashant Kotak
Prashant Kotak
11 months ago

(a) I don’t think there is a cat in hells chance that Sunak will reverse on green policies, anyone who thinks he might, does not understand what PMs look for – they are interested in their ‘legacy’, and they are interested in the validation provided by their peers (global leaders and other high-end technocrats), and I suspect Sunak would rather chew off his own left leg with his teeth than take a risk on reneging on green policies and provoke the opprobrium of his peers, losing an election would honestly be much more acceptable. What he will offer instead, is some soothing mumbled words about how green policies must not hurt poor people and how his government will put policies in place to ensure the same.

(b) I don’t think there is a cat in hells chance that Starmer will reverse on green policies,… oh, just see my point (a) about Sunak.

(c) The idea that Starmer can commit ‘Britain to massive state-directed investment’ is a non-starter – the coffers of every major economy are not just empty but deeply negative, and any attempt to try such a policy would sooner or later trigger a market reaction that makes the market reaction to the Truss/Kwateng budget look like a chimpanzees tea party. Things might have been different if the Johnson government hadn’t blown it’s stack on its Covid response and instead kept most of it’s powder dry, but that’s not where we are.

(d) It’s clear to me what both parties will do is keep up the pretence that they have options and can offer genuine positive change, but in truth whoever gets to govern the UK will be a kite in high winds, and they will be very lucky indeed if they manage a full term without at least one full blown economic crisis, and instead manage a gentle decline.

(e) “…boosting individual prosperity and — for a while — consumption before phasing out fossil fuels…” … So should Starmer change his name to Truss, Reeves to Kwateng, by deed poll then, before embarking on such a strategy?

Last edited 11 months ago by Prashant Kotak
Prashant Kotak
Prashant Kotak
11 months ago

(a) I don’t think there is a cat in hells chance that Sunak will reverse on green policies, anyone who thinks he might, does not understand what PMs look for – they are interested in their ‘legacy’, and they are interested in the validation provided by their peers (global leaders and other high-end technocrats), and I suspect Sunak would rather chew off his own left leg with his teeth than take a risk on reneging on green policies and provoke the opprobrium of his peers, losing an election would honestly be much more acceptable. What he will offer instead, is some soothing mumbled words about how green policies must not hurt poor people and how his government will put policies in place to ensure the same.

(b) I don’t think there is a cat in hells chance that Starmer will reverse on green policies,… oh, just see my point (a) about Sunak.

(c) The idea that Starmer can commit ‘Britain to massive state-directed investment’ is a non-starter – the coffers of every major economy are not just empty but deeply negative, and any attempt to try such a policy would sooner or later trigger a market reaction that makes the market reaction to the Truss/Kwateng budget look like a chimpanzees tea party. Things might have been different if the Johnson government hadn’t blown it’s stack on its Covid response and instead kept most of it’s powder dry, but that’s not where we are.

(d) It’s clear to me what both parties will do is keep up the pretence that they have options and can offer genuine positive change, but in truth whoever gets to govern the UK will be a kite in high winds, and they will be very lucky indeed if they manage a full term without at least one full blown economic crisis, and instead manage a gentle decline.

(e) “…boosting individual prosperity and — for a while — consumption before phasing out fossil fuels…” … So should Starmer change his name to Truss, Reeves to Kwateng, by deed poll then, before embarking on such a strategy?

Last edited 11 months ago by Prashant Kotak
Brendan O'Leary
Brendan O'Leary
11 months ago

“Green Growth” ith a myth.

Rohan Achnay
Rohan Achnay
11 months ago

The deep irony is believing that green growth will lead to reduced emissions when the reality is the complete opposite.

Net Zero and renewable energy (RE) technologies inparticular do not help tackle climate change but instead help to accelerate it.

This is because of three reasons.

One, the extraction, transportation and processing of the raw materials required for RE technologies is predominantly powered by fossil fuels.

Two, as a result RE technologies will simply add to the stock of primary energy consumption which in turn will continue to support existing and increased production and consumption of goods and services, much of which is produced and consumed with the help of fossil fuels.

Third, due to the Jevons Paradox, any displaced consumption of fossil fuels as a result of the enduse of RE technologies will simply be re-utilised elsewhere in the global economic system in order to facilitate yet more economic growth and development.

As such, the only real way of combatting climate change, biodiversity loss and generalised ecological degradation is by reducing overall energy and material throughput via laws, regulations, quotas and taxes.

Of course, the net economic result of reducing energy and material throughput would be to make everyone poorer, especially as the human population grows. This is because it is energy that powers economic activity, not money.

However, this sole solution is politically unfeasible since who would willingly vote to make their countries poorer, even if it was to protect themselves against the risks and liabilities associated with climate change, biodiversity loss and ecological degradation.

Overall, Net Zero is at heart an economic growth strategy that seeks to expand the overall availability of energy for all the reasons above.

https://ourworldindata.org/energy-production-consumption

In this respect, green growth is not a myth but it is a myth in terms of reducing CO2 emissions. Possibly eco-socialist growth can plan production in such a way as to increase resource efficiency and thereby reduce waste but the greater likelihood is that there will be a race to the top in terms of material expectations. So alongside human population growth, energy and material throughput will radically increase leading to increased waste, emissions and environmental pollution.

Therefore it is probably only eco-socialist degrowth that will offer any certainty of staying within planetary limits but people will not willingly vote for eco-austerity especially within an unequal class based world.

Therefore the future is increasing climate and ecological instability.

Glyn R
Glyn R
11 months ago

The Green energy and car industry is anything but Green as far as I can see.
Solar panels? Wind turbines? Electric cars? None of it really passes close scrutiny but major corporations embraced these as a means to make money and also to rebrand as philanthropic guardians of the earth rather than its greedy and rapacious rulers. Having come so far they are not about to change course no matter what.

Last edited 11 months ago by Glyn R
Rohan Achnay
Rohan Achnay
11 months ago

The deep irony is believing that green growth will lead to reduced emissions when the reality is the complete opposite.

Net Zero and renewable energy (RE) technologies inparticular do not help tackle climate change but instead help to accelerate it.

This is because of three reasons.

One, the extraction, transportation and processing of the raw materials required for RE technologies is predominantly powered by fossil fuels.

Two, as a result RE technologies will simply add to the stock of primary energy consumption which in turn will continue to support existing and increased production and consumption of goods and services, much of which is produced and consumed with the help of fossil fuels.

Third, due to the Jevons Paradox, any displaced consumption of fossil fuels as a result of the enduse of RE technologies will simply be re-utilised elsewhere in the global economic system in order to facilitate yet more economic growth and development.

As such, the only real way of combatting climate change, biodiversity loss and generalised ecological degradation is by reducing overall energy and material throughput via laws, regulations, quotas and taxes.

Of course, the net economic result of reducing energy and material throughput would be to make everyone poorer, especially as the human population grows. This is because it is energy that powers economic activity, not money.

However, this sole solution is politically unfeasible since who would willingly vote to make their countries poorer, even if it was to protect themselves against the risks and liabilities associated with climate change, biodiversity loss and ecological degradation.

Overall, Net Zero is at heart an economic growth strategy that seeks to expand the overall availability of energy for all the reasons above.

https://ourworldindata.org/energy-production-consumption

In this respect, green growth is not a myth but it is a myth in terms of reducing CO2 emissions. Possibly eco-socialist growth can plan production in such a way as to increase resource efficiency and thereby reduce waste but the greater likelihood is that there will be a race to the top in terms of material expectations. So alongside human population growth, energy and material throughput will radically increase leading to increased waste, emissions and environmental pollution.

Therefore it is probably only eco-socialist degrowth that will offer any certainty of staying within planetary limits but people will not willingly vote for eco-austerity especially within an unequal class based world.

Therefore the future is increasing climate and ecological instability.

Glyn R
Glyn R
11 months ago

The Green energy and car industry is anything but Green as far as I can see.
Solar panels? Wind turbines? Electric cars? None of it really passes close scrutiny but major corporations embraced these as a means to make money and also to rebrand as philanthropic guardians of the earth rather than its greedy and rapacious rulers. Having come so far they are not about to change course no matter what.

Last edited 11 months ago by Glyn R
Brendan O'Leary
Brendan O'Leary
11 months ago

“Green Growth” ith a myth.

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
11 months ago

Canada is spending $25 billion for two battery plants, at a cost of $6 million per job. And that’s if the subsidies deliver the jobs they promise, which will almost certainly not happen. Someone please explain to me how this makes sense.

Ralph Hanke
Ralph Hanke
11 months ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

Yeah, that policy is pretty fucked up .

I guess trudeau and ford looked south to Buffalo and thought “if they can build a football stadium with tax payer’s dollars we can build a battery plant, or two.”

Ralph Hanke
Ralph Hanke
11 months ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

Yeah, that policy is pretty fucked up .

I guess trudeau and ford looked south to Buffalo and thought “if they can build a football stadium with tax payer’s dollars we can build a battery plant, or two.”

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
11 months ago

Canada is spending $25 billion for two battery plants, at a cost of $6 million per job. And that’s if the subsidies deliver the jobs they promise, which will almost certainly not happen. Someone please explain to me how this makes sense.

Dougie Undersub
Dougie Undersub
11 months ago

Shouldn’t we be absolutely sure it’s necessary before we spend these huge sums, essentially to replace infrastructure that works perfectly well?
Those predictions of climate doom are predicated on the IPCC’s most extreme scenario playing out unvaried over the next 30 years. Reality has already diverged significantly from this scenario, in a helpful direction.

Dougie Undersub
Dougie Undersub
11 months ago

Shouldn’t we be absolutely sure it’s necessary before we spend these huge sums, essentially to replace infrastructure that works perfectly well?
Those predictions of climate doom are predicated on the IPCC’s most extreme scenario playing out unvaried over the next 30 years. Reality has already diverged significantly from this scenario, in a helpful direction.

Steve Murray
Steve Murray
11 months ago

Aris has been a busy boy; busying himself with the false right/left dichotomy in European politics for which he received a pretty unfavourable reception from the Unherd commentariat, but with this article he’s probably on firmer ground.
I don’t know enough about the economic viability of pushing a Green agenda through ‘growth’ to draw any conclusions. I think anyone drawing any conclusions about this whole issue would be simply premature in any case. What i do think he’s got right is that in order to take the populations of those countries in the first world for whom the change in industrial strategy would impact their living standards the most, there has to be a lot more “carrot” than “stick” and this is clearly demonstrated with what can be seen as “the ULEZ vote”.
If positives are to be drawn from Boris Johnson’s travails and eventual resignation, the message sent to politicians by the Uxbridge result is surely it.

Steve Murray
Steve Murray
11 months ago

Aris has been a busy boy; busying himself with the false right/left dichotomy in European politics for which he received a pretty unfavourable reception from the Unherd commentariat, but with this article he’s probably on firmer ground.
I don’t know enough about the economic viability of pushing a Green agenda through ‘growth’ to draw any conclusions. I think anyone drawing any conclusions about this whole issue would be simply premature in any case. What i do think he’s got right is that in order to take the populations of those countries in the first world for whom the change in industrial strategy would impact their living standards the most, there has to be a lot more “carrot” than “stick” and this is clearly demonstrated with what can be seen as “the ULEZ vote”.
If positives are to be drawn from Boris Johnson’s travails and eventual resignation, the message sent to politicians by the Uxbridge result is surely it.

Stephen Quilley
Stephen Quilley
11 months ago

Poverty and living standards are relative. That’s the point. What is the absolute benchmark to which you are going to raise living standards…before accepting the logic of limits. This is again incoherent

Stephen Quilley
Stephen Quilley
11 months ago

Poverty and living standards are relative. That’s the point. What is the absolute benchmark to which you are going to raise living standards…before accepting the logic of limits. This is again incoherent

Alex Stonor
Alex Stonor
11 months ago

It’s not just that the traffic reduction policies make people poorer, they disproportionately negatively impact the disabled which breaches the Equality Act. It would be something to celebrate, if the disastrous Low Traffic Neighbourhoods could be scrapped too!