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Traffic on the M25. The Civitas report claims to offer a ‘realistic’ ?4.5tn estimate of the cost of reaching net zero by 2050 – much higher than the figure from the government’s official climate adviser, the Climate Change Committee. Photograph: Neil Hall/EPA
Traffic on the M25. The Civitas report claims to offer a ‘realistic’ ?4.5tn estimate of the cost of reaching net zero by 2050 – much higher than the figure from the government’s official climate adviser, the Climate Change Committee. Photograph: Neil Hall/EPA

How a thinktank got the cost of net zero for the UK wildly wrong

This article is more than 2 months old

Civitas’s deeply flawed report was timed to follow the PM’s speech in which he called for an honest approach to the issue

Imagine demanding an “honest” debate over the cost of net zero in a report full of errors that even a schoolboy would be embarrassed about. Then imagine getting coverage of your report in the Sun, Times, Daily Mail, Daily Express and Spectator.

Sound impossible? Well, let me tell you how Civitas, one of the thinktanks housed at 55 Tufton Street in London, did exactly that, and nearly got away with it.

On Wednesday, Civitas published a pamphlet on net zero by Ewen Stewart, whose consultancy, Walbrook Economics, works on “the interaction of macroeconomics, politics and capital markets”.

Stewart is also a climate sceptic, having written in 2021 that human-caused warming is a “contested theory”. Along with Civitas, 55 Tufton Street also houses the climate-sceptic lobby group the Global Warming Policy Foundation and its campaigning arm Net Zero Watch. These groups previously attempted to spark an “honest debate about the cost of net-zero” in 2020.

The Civitas report claims to offer a “realistic” ?4.5tn estimate of the cost of reaching net zero emissions by 2050 and says “the government need to be honest with the British people”.

This estimate is much higher than the figure produced by the government’s official adviser, the Climate Change Committee (CCC), which has said that reaching net zero would require net investments of ?1.4tn by 2050. Note the difference between Civitas’s “costs” and the CCC’s “net investments”. The CCC also found that reaching net zero would generate savings in the form of lower fossil fuel bills worth ?1.1tn, resulting in a net cost of ?0.3tn.

In his report for Civitas, Stewart adopts the well-worn climate-sceptic tactic of simply ignoring these savings. He also ignores what the Office for Budget Responsibility has called the potentially “catastrophic economic and fiscal consequences” of unmitigated climate change.

The report was timed to follow hot on the heels of Rishi Sunak’s big climate speech, in which he called for an “honest” approach to net zero that ends “unacceptable costs”.

Unfortunately the report’s author has confused power capacity in megawatts (MW) with electricity generation in megawatt hours (MWh). As a result, he presents a distinctly unrealistic “?1.3m per MWh” figure for the cost for onshore wind power. The true number is around ?50-70/MWh – more than 10,000 times lower. He then compounded his embarrassment by mixing up billions with trillions.

Nevertheless the report got supportive coverage in the Daily Mail. A piece by the paper’s deputy political editor had a headline that claimed net zero “could cost households ?6,000 a year”. At the Sun, the story also landed on the deputy political editor’s desk, and also inspired an editorial denouncing “dishonest rhetoric” on net zero.

In the Spectator, the climate-sceptic commentator Ross Clark hedged his bets a little, given the many errors in the report, but argued: “There is no reason to suppose Civitas’ figures will turn out to be right … But they are an important contribution to a debate.”

The Daily Telegraph and the Times – both of which have experienced teams of specialist energy and environment reporters – declined to give news coverage to the Civitas report. The Times, however, did give a prominent comment slot to Tim Knox, the former director of Civitas’s neighbours, the Centre for Policy Studies . The paper failed to mention his association with the report, which acknowledges on one page that it would not have been possible without him.

The Daily Express gave space to another Tufton Street thinktank to weigh in, with the Taxpayers Alliance also writing a comment in support of Civitas’s work.

Despite the report’s errors, the Tufton Street playbook had, at this stage, worked flawlessly, laundering a set of embarrassingly wrong numbers into the nation’s newspapers and giving the likes of the rightwing gossip blog Order Order the chance to promote them.

By lunchtime on the day after the report’s publication, however, its many errors had become the subject of viral tweets on X, previously known as Twitter, piling pressure on Civitas to respond.

An extremely hastily issued “update” on the Civitas website says: “There has been criticism on social media of two paragraphs on page 47 of this report, where capacity and output are confused. These paragraphs will be amended and updated. The author is happy to acknowledge this and correct the report.”

It then adds: “The fact remains that we are facing a huge bill for net zero that is many times more than official estimates.”

Stewart could easily have avoided this embarrassment. After seeing an embargoed copy of the report, I had emailed him pointing out the error over units the day before it was published. He never responded.

The update from Civitas ignored the many other problems with the report, including areas where it included costs for doing the same thing twice.

It is littered with assertions unencumbered by facts or evidence. It states, for example, that it is “not unreasonable to assume” that net zero would add ?403bn to the cost of food.

Actual evidence that the impacts of climate change and high fossil fuel prices has added an estimated ?11bn to UK food bills in 2022 alone, on the other hand, is conveniently ignored.

Similarly, Civitas cites a 2019 report from the Faraday Institution to claim that net zero could result in 114,000 job losses in the car industry, while ignoring the same report’s finding that, on the contrary, a well-marshalled shift to electric vehicles could support 246,000 jobs in the sector.

As well as ignoring the savings from net zero in terms of lower fossil fuel bills, the Civitas report sidesteps the costs of unmitigated climate change – and ignores the cost of business-as-usual.

This amounts to assuming that the UK could continue to get energy from fossil fuels for free, as well as being able to replace old gas boilers, cars with internal combustion engines and fossil-fuelled power stations as they retire with new fossil-fuelled infrastructure without ever having to pay for it.

At the time of writing, only one newspaper – the Times – had acknowledged any of these issues, albeit only half-heartedly. It has added a note to the Knox comment piece that repeats Civitas’s assertion that only two paragraphs of its report were in error. All of the other uncritical coverage remains.

This article was amended on 3 October 2023 to correct the name of the Faraday Institution.

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