We don’t even know for sure whether we will be able to celebrate Christmas this year, though last night there were indications that households may be able to mix.
Whatever happens, these are gloomy times. Is this really the right moment for Boris Johnson to pop up with a revolutionary ten-point green plan, the most striking aspect of which is that the sales of new petrol and diesel cars will be banned from 2030, ten years earlier than previously planned?
I’m sure environmental campaigners will be pleased, and I’ve no doubt Boris wants to give the impression that even in the midst of this dreadful pandemic his ‘big-picture’ mind is whirling away as he contemplates the future.
Britain’s main opposition Labour Party leader Keir Starmer (centre) speaking as Prime Minister Boris Johnson takes part in PMQs remotely via a Zoom video call, November 18
Maybe we should be grateful someone is peering over the horizon, but I’m afraid my main feeling is that this ill‑timed announcement hasn’t been properly thought through, and is probably not deliverable.
And I say this as someone who, like most people, would be delighted if Britain were a cleaner and less polluted land — so long as that highly desirable outcome can be achieved without impoverishing the country and placing intolerable burdens on already hard-pressed people.
Why is it suddenly deemed practical to ban new petrol and diesel cars in 2030? If the regulations apply from the beginning of that year, that leaves only nine years and one month to bring about an enormous transformation.
Admittedly electric vehicles are being bought in larger numbers, but they account for less than 1 per cent of all cars on Britain’s roads. This is hardly surprising since they are significantly more expensive (though cheaper to run) than petrol and diesel vehicles, and can manage a much more limited distance on a single charge.
Unless you are fortunate enough to have off-road parking, it will be difficult to charge an electric car at home. Many people will be dependent on charging points on the road — of which there are precious few at the moment.
An electric car charges on a street recharging port in London, Wednesday, November 18, Britain says it will ban the sale of new gasoline and diesel cars by 2030
It’s true the Government has promised to spend £1.3 billion on new charging points, though whether this amount of money will provide enough of them in the right places by 2030 is anyone’s guess.
I also expect that over the next decade electric cars could become cheaper as manufacturing volumes increase, and the mileage from a single charge may gradually expand.
More from Stephen Glover for the Daily Mail…
The fact remains that, as things stand, electric cars are far from ideal. They are a work in progress, and many people in 2030 will probably find them less convenient and more expensive than what the environmental lobby derides as ‘fossil fuel’ vehicles.
Nor is the Government likely to have the funds to provide subsidies for the purchase of electric cars, as happens in wealthy Norway. On the contrary, because it stands to lose billions of pounds in fuel duty, it may well charge drivers to use roads whose construction the taxpayer has already paid for. The less well-off could be penalised.
Am I being a misery guts? Maybe a tiny bit. I just think that the arbitrary change of dates from 2040 to 2030 when there is no infrastructure in place, and the shortcomings of electric cars remain unresolved, smacks of ivory-tower thinking.
Similarly unrealistic is the plan to install 600,000 heat pumps a year by 2028 even though they are several times more expensive than the boilers they are meant to replace, and only 30,000 were fitted last year.
With the exception of Norway (overflowing with money, ironically enough produced by North Sea oil), other countries are not demanding such imminent sacrifices from their citizens.
Britain’s Speaker of the House of Commons, Sir Lindsay Hoyle (left) and Prime Minister Boris Johnson on a screen (right) as he takes part virtually in the Prime Minister’s Questions
Johnson, who battled a coronavirus infection earlier this year, is self-isolating after having been exposed to the coronavirus again
Many of these countries account for far greater greenhouse gas emissions than the UK, which is responsible for a minuscule 1.2 per cent of the global total. The Government can’t single-handedly save the world, but it can single-handedly disadvantage the British people and undermine the economy.
It would be silly to deny there are some bright features in the green plan. Since the cost of wind energy is coming down, it makes sense to build more turbines — so long as they are offshore and don’t blight the countryside.
Wind, however, doesn’t blow all the time, and so alternative sources of energy are needed. One clever scheme is investing to develop small nuclear reactors, which might produce electricity more cheaply than the kind of massive nuclear power station being constructed at Hinckley Point.
Nor would anyone quarrel with the proposal to plant almost 75,000 acres with trees every year (unless they are ugly conifers) or with the notion of improving insulation in schools and hospitals.
So, yes, there are some good ideas here, though some of them, such as more offshore wind turbines, have already been announced. The question is whether the Government can deliver.
The PM is a big ideas man. No doubt influenced by his fiancee Carrie Symonds, an ardent environmentalist, he grows greener by the day. But will he be able to fulfil these ambitious, and largely uncosted, plans? There is an issue of practicality.
As Mayor of London, Boris Johnson championed cycle lanes. Fair enough. The trouble is that (as with his Labour successor, Sadiq Khan, who enthusiastically seized this particular baton from him) they seem to have been deliberately created to punish drivers, whose main pastime as they are stuck in horrendous queues is to contemplate empty cycle lanes.
Ministers have already committed £2 billion for cycling and walking, and (another example of re-circulating previously announced news) cycle lanes are part of Boris’s plan. But must they always be constructed so as to cause maximum aggravation to drivers?
Then there is the wider question of the PM’s ability to deliver a revolutionary plan that would challenge the most capable of governments (not that we have had many of those in recent memory).
Throughout the pandemic, the Government has hardly established a reputation for managerial competence. On Tuesday, the National Audit Office produced a damning report citing the Government’s cronyism and ineptitude as it splashed out £18 billion sourcing PPE and other equipment.
The desire ‘to create and support up to 250,000 British jobs’ through the ten-point green plan is obviously worthy, but it depends on identifying the right entrepreneurial companies and ensuring that public money entrusted to them is not misspent. Governments are generally poor at spotting winners.
My fear about this grand plan — though I repeat there are good things in it — is that it has not been properly considered, and takes little account of the practical realities of people’s everyday lives.
Most of us would happily drive an electric car if it were just as effective and no more expensive. We would cheerfully exchange a boiler for a heat pump if we were sure we wouldn’t be out of pocket after a Government subsidy.
But Boris Johnson is asking us — or is he compelling us? — to join him on a journey without maps in which we could all get lost. And, strangest of all, he is doing so at this grimmest of moments when we have more far more pressing matters on our minds.