The clowns are at it again. When Sunak took over the British premiership from the last Conservative mess of a Prime Minister, someone who must have set some kind of record for their damage-to-tenure ratio, I did have a little hope that he would at least try and be the “sensible adult in the room” that was promised. No hope at all that he’d come up with thoughtful or progressive policies, but maybe at least he’d manage to be some kind of boring technocrat before losing the next general election.

I guess I was wrong. It seems like he wants the next election to be fought over the issue of which party can promise to damage the environment the most, with a side-helping of who can make the roads as dangerous as possible for us, their valued citizens. My fear is Labour will actually sign up to that battle, throwing away the last remnants of the only policies of theirs I positively liked to the wind. “The wind” of course being the next devastating hurricane the ongoing climate catastrophe summons up.

A few days ago he was promoting his slightly 2017-robot-disguised-as-human visage via a photo of him supposedly sitting in Margaret Thatcher’s old car.

Inevitably this turned out to be another lie, albeit probably an accidental one, insomuch as the car he was sitting in was not in fact Thatcher’s vehicle, but rather one that her protection squad used.

Sunak of course has form for pretending he’s in other people’s cars for PR reasons, namely the famous incident him filling up his Kia with post-tax-cut petrol that in fact wasn’t his Kia. At least it shows he has wherewithal to feel some tension between showing off his own extremely expensive fleet of cars and unnecessary helicopters and appearing as, same as they all want to pretend to be, yawn, “a man of the people”.

Anyway, why was he polluting the media-waves pretending to be in Thatcher’s car? Well a part of it was no doubt the weird obsession many of the wannabe Conservative movers-and-shakers and their acolytes have with their former Prime Minister who it must be said did actually manage to get things done. The wrong things, sure, but things. Things with even more impact than the best of today’s cabinet sponsored warm-take cringe-tweet.

But also following the only Conservative hold in the recent “Day Of 3-Byelections”, the Uxbridge result where they managed to lose only around 93% of their previous majority, it’s been decided by all and sundry that the reason they won was because they campaigned against the “ULEZ”.

Despite it’s name, the ULEZ is not a species of war-mongering aliens, but rather the Ultra Low Emission Zone. It’s a London based policy whereby if you have a vehicle that emits above a certain threshold of polluting emissions then you have to pay £12.50 a day to drive it within the specified zone. The zone now includes Uxbridge after the (Labour) Mayor of London extended its scope. So this was admittedly potentially going to get pretty expensive for folk who have cause to regularly drive. Labour seems to agree, with their leader, Kier Starmer, deciding he’s also against it.

It seems a reasonable criticism that making people with with non-compliant cars pay probably biases the charges towards older cars, which in turn means that the average owner might likely be poorer than someone with a newer, compliant, car (but much richer than someone with no car, plus not all new cars are compliant). Whether the charge will be tilted towards folk with a lesser ability to afford to pay it or not is a factual matter. I’m sure someone has looked into it. And if it is, and it’s seen as unfair, then sure, let’s dream up a new policy that actually gets at what we really want to do here - which is to protect the environment, rather than let people pay to damage the environment.

But somehow the issue of a certain constituency saying they don’t like a very specific fairly punitive-at-the-individual-level scheme has developed into the idea that all pro-environmental policies are evil. Hence the Sunak tweet, sitting in his fake car, “talking about freedom” (cringe) blasting out how he’s the true motorist’s friend.

And it’s not just bad tweets.

He’s ordered a review of all current low-traffic neighbourhoods (LTNs). Despite the fact in reality they’re quite popular, even if Conservative MP Nick Fletcher does believe them to be an “international socialist concept”, whatever that means.

Further complicating matters is that no-one knows what LTN even means. Depending on the definition taken, there may be more than 25,000 of them. Their main use is to stop a torrent of traffic ripping its way through narrow residential streets. Pedestrians and cyclists can pass freely, and cars can still access the streets in order reach any destination within the area - but they’re generally blocked in a way that stops you motoring your way right through a city entirely on the small, easily clogged, heavily pedestrian oriented streets where children play and suchlike.

In a further bid to lionise the act of speeding tons of metal through inappropriate routes, ministers are also apparently thinking to restrict councils' freedom to create 20 miles per hour speed limits. The RoadPeace charity is amongst many other interested parties who express sentiments along the lines of being “extremely disappointed to see roads made demonstrably less safe.”

Central government imposing these restrictions on council decisions - I guess Sunak stopped “talking about freedom” right after he left the photo-op - might not actually be be legal under current legislation. They might have to change the 1984 Road Traffic Regulation Act to go ahead with this.

These things are also important for reasons outside of environmental emissions, and in fact aren’t necessarily even targeted at improving our atmosphere in that way. As Devi Sridhar recently summarised, this stuff is:

…not about banning cars, but about making it cheaper and simpler to replace short-distance single occupancy journeys with alternatives that have far-reaching benefits for the city’s inhabitants and the planet.

Those benefits include staying alive. The ultimate freedom, if we must. It was a campaign group whose name translates to “Stop The Child Murder” that helped compel the Dutch government to make their cities less car focussed. Over 400 children died in traffic accidents over there in 1971. Now it’s more like 17 per year.

Over here in the UK, last year a study found that reducing the speed limit in the city of Edinburgh to 20 mph - the very thing that the government is rumoured to oppose - reduced road deaths by 23%, serious injuries by 33% and collisions by 40%. “Livability”, things such as safety, health, sustainability and living standards also improved, as did the number of people who supported and were willing to obey the new limits.

The majority of Dutch people are cyclists now, making them the one of the most physically active populations around according to an Ipsos poll , with all the concomitant health and life-extending benefits that brings. People seem to embrace pro-cycling infrastructure when it exists; increasing the number of cycle lanes in Paris led to a 54% increase in cycle usage.

And air pollution does more than cause our planet to burn up. A group of doctors wrote to the Labour leader and mayor of London begging them not to bow to the pressure to throw away the progress made so far with initiatives such as ULEZ because:

Air pollution affects every one of us from before we are born into old age. It not only causes respiratory conditions such as asthma, but also heart attacks, heart arrhythmias, strokes, child developmental disorders, lung cancer and dementia.

A recent study also suggests that air pollution may be exacerbating the rise of antibiotic resistance. Antibiotic resistance already kills 1.3 million people a year, and if it gets out of hand could in theory make a serious dent in global human population numbers. It’s “one of the biggest threats to global health, food security, and development today.” according to the World Health Organisation:

…we are heading for a post-antibiotic era, in which common infections and minor injuries can once again kill.

The ULEZ scheme specifically seems to be helping on the air pollution front. London’s air pollution has dropped. I haven’t looked into how to quantify this directly in terms of health benefits. But 4,000 of London’s deaths were apparently attributable to air pollution in 2019 so there are some major wins potentially to be had.

One study suggested that if the mayor’s air pollution policies were followed then Londoners would gain an extra 6.1 million life years by 2050. It would be even higher, 20% higher, if they managed to meet the World Health Organisation guidelines.

The ULEZ scheme itself aims to save over a million hospital admissions, albeit this particular figure sounds like a somewhat vague aspiration that won’t be realised until 2050 so possibly one should dig into the evidence around that before parroting it too much.

The doctors raised another important point, and one that highlights that any “unfairness” or economic harm caused to some people by ULEZ is down to policy choices, not its overall objective.

The policy shouldn’t stand alone. Rather there should be “a commitment to a much more affordable, frequent and reliable public transport system” as well. People do need to get to places. No sensible person should argue otherwise. But I can easily think of several other carrot-rather-than-stick approaches that might be added to the mix, rather than removing one of the few things that seems to be working for the sake of the Conservatives desperate attempt to introduce some US-imported-style culture war banter as a last ditch effort to not get totally laughed out of office next time we have a general election.

Obviously the idea should be to put together a package of policies that improve the health of us and our planet whilst mitigating any downsides of any individual approach. Not just give up and throw them all in the landfill-destined bin because a few of those people not rendered too ill by air pollution to get to the polling station in a couple of years time might vote for you.

The insanity is not limited to the motorist love-ins unfortunately. Last week Sunak announced a vast expansion of North Sea oil and gas drilling. Living as we do in a post-truth world, he claims that this is “entirely consistent with our plan to get to net zero”. He actually seems to think that it’s positively pro-environment. More on this in a bit.

Oxfam’s climate advisor disagrees and highlights that should we want to generate more energy more locally at less environmental cost - all good objectives when the current option often seems to lead to paying war criminals big bucks to import it let alone the environmental concerns - there is an obvious alternative:

Extracting more fossil fuels from the North Sea will send a wrecking ball through the UK’s climate commitments at a time when we should be investing in a just transition to a low-carbon economy and our own abundant renewables.

It’s not like he’s proposing nationalising the process, or really doing anything other than let whichever company does the extraction run riot on the “free” market as far as I can see.

Per Mike Childs from Friends of the Earth:

Granting hundreds of new oil and gas licences will simply pour more fuel on the flames, while doing nothing for energy security as these fossil fuels will be sold on international markets and not reserved for UK use

Similar comments abound. Kate White from the WWF is quoted by Sky News

" [Sunak’s plan will] do nothing to cut household energy bills or shore up our energy security - it will simply line the pockets of the extractive industry while the world burns…the solution to the climate crisis and the cost of living crisis is in affordable, clean energy; better insulation for our homes; and restoring our natural world.”

Carbon Brief looked into some of the energy security related claims. Unsurprisingly they don’t stack up.

Apparently on average it takes 28 years after the granting of oil and gas licenses for the flow of fossil fuels to start. If it’s anything like as long as that then these fuels won’t come online until the 2040s. They do nothing to solve today’s security or cost of living crisis. And by 2040 we should be well on our way towards net zero, with the plan (supposedly supported by Sunak) being to decarbonise the UK economy by 2050. If we need a new flow of fossil fuel at that point then something went very wrong.

There are so many other ways the government could improve the cost of living situation for UK citizens that don’t involve waiting a quarter of a century and hoping big businesses show unprecedented compassion.

There’s certainly no reason to suspect the fossil fuel companies would by remotely shy about maximising their profits from any new gas and oil that they could possibly get their hands on. In these cost-of-living-whilst-the-world-burns crisis times Shell recently reported its largest ever first quarter profits: $9.6 billion for the first quarter of this year. BP made $5 billion profit during the same period.

Sunak et al also seem to have gotten this odd idea that “buying local” is incredibly environmentally beneficial when it comes to fossil fuels, claiming that importing fuel from elsewhere ends up releasing 3-4x as many carbon emissions.

At first this made me wonder if Sunak thinks that we import oil by putting it into small bottles and hand delivering it via single-passenger private jets or something. Once I got over myself, I actually looked into what the reality is and wrote about it in more detail here.

The TLDR would be that the “3-4x the emissions” claim for imported alternatives to North Sea gas and oil is not exactly an outright fiction but it’s very misleading. It appears to refer to only the emissions associated with the transport of fuel, only for gas, and only for the minority of gas that is transported to the UK in liquid form.

The process of shipping gas via boat involves converting it to liquid form (Liquified Natural Gas, or “LNG”) before putting it on a boat and then converting it back when it arrives. That is an energy intensive process, quite possibly generating 3-4x the emissions associated with (just) the transporting of gas via methods not involving LNG, such as via a pipeline.

However, it turns out that only a minority of Britain’s imported gas is transported via LNG. Most of it comes through a pipeline and hence does not incur anything like that process' emissions penalty.

In any case, the emissions generated by even the nasty LNG gas process are only a small fraction of the total emissions generated during the lifecycle of the gas overall. The large majority of emissions come from the actual use of the fuel itself. There is no possible way to reduce the actual emissions associated with that gas by anything like as much as 3-4x by fiddling around with the extraction or transport process when most of the emissions are associated with the end use of the gas itself.

For what it’s worth, oil isn’t affected by the LNG process so I couldn’t find any similar-in-scale emissions savings to be had there.

It’s also of note that some countries are substantially better than the UK at extracting gas and oil in terms of having reduced emissions for the extraction process itself. The trend there will also be that they improve further if they enact the process improvements that they’ve already committed to. But this is still not the biggest deal: remember that the majority of the emissions associated with gas come from the usage of the gas itself.

For what it’s worth, switching to basically any form of renewable energy would vastly outweigh even the very best case emissions savings one could get from the North Sea network. Vastly. Yes, even when you take into account the end-to-end impact of manufacturing, maintaining and disposing of the equipment needed to use renewables.

Other assumptions that one would have to make in order to see even the small North Sea emissions benefit prospectively on offer include:

  1. That the North Sea gas is all kept and used in the UK rather than being exported elsewhere. As mentioned above, there’s no reason to believe that that will happen.
  2. That any extra gas and oil extracted from the North Sea means that there will be a similar reduction in the amount extracted (and in part exported via LNG) globally. I see no reason to think that that will be true. It’s not like we’ve reached a level where the demand for energy is entirely satiated. Instead, there’s a good chance that the oil and gas market will simply enlarge. And if more gas and oil is sold then - especially as most of the associated emissions come from the use of the fuels - proportionally more pollution will be generated.

So for all Sunak’s hobby of “talking about freedom” he seems to be chatting about only very specific types of freedom.

It’s a type of freedom that values the freedom to create traffic jams on unsuitably small residential roads over the freedom to not become ill from other people’s air pollution infusing your home. The freedom to legally drive 10 miles per hour faster than you used to be able to, over the freedom to not be involved in a fatal accident. The freedom for a few to greatly profit from the harmful exploitation of natural resources over the freedom for us all to live in a planet with a bearable climate. You can’t enjoy exceeding the 20 mph limit all that much if you are too ill or too dead to drive.

The people who tend to be most vulnerable to pollution or the immediate ravages of climate change are of course on average poorer, more disadvantaged, and hold less economic and political power than the average person, let alone the CEO of whichever big oil company and the owners of very fast cars. In this way, Frank Wilhoit’s evergreen canard that conservatives naturally tend towards the idea that laws exist to protect in-groups by binding out-groups shows its face once again.