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A new cold war: Trump, Xi and the escalating US-China confrontation

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“From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an ‘iron curtain’ has descended across the continent.” Winston Churchill’s speech in Fulton, Missouri, in March 1946 is remembered as a key moment in the outbreak of the cold war.

If future historians are ever looking for a speech that marked the beginning of a second cold war — this time between America and China — they may point to an address by Mike Pence delivered at Washington’s Hudson Institute in October 2018. “China wants nothing less than to push the United States of America from the western Pacific . . . But they will fail,” the vice-president declared. “We will not be intimidated and we will not stand down.” Pointing to China’s political system, Mr Pence argued: “A country that oppresses its own people rarely stops there.”

For students of the first cold war between the US and the USSR, some of this sounded eerily and worryingly familiar. Once again, the US is facing off against a rival superpower. Once again, a military rivalry is taking shape — although this time, the main theatre is the western Pacific rather than central Europe. And once again, the conflict is being framed as one between the free world and a dictatorship. To add to the sense of symmetry, the People’s Republic of China, like the Soviet Union, is run by a Communist party.

Even in the past few months, the deterioration in relations between the US and China has rapidly gathered pace, against the backdrop of a feverish election campaign in the US. Military tensions in the Pacific are rising. Taiwanese officials say the September exercises by the Chinese military within its air defence buffer zone were the most significant threat to its security since Beijing launched missiles into the seas around the island in 1996. The US has a commitment to help the country defend itself.

Map showing recent military exercises near Taiwan

The US has moved aggressively to block Chinese technology firms, such as TikTok and Huawei — from expanding their international operations, or buying US-made computer chips. China and America are even indulging in tit-for-tat expulsions of journalists.

And coronavirus, which originated in China, has devastated the global economy and led to more than 200,000 deaths in America. President Donald Trump, who is currently in hospital after testing positive for the virus, has made it clear that he holds the government of China directly responsible for the pandemic.

In another confrontational speech that will probably be remembered by historians, secretary of state Mike Pompeo warned in July that five decades of engagement with China had been a failure.

New cold war

In a series of articles this week, the FT explores how the US-China rivalry is beginning to resemble a new cold war, with the technology world splitting into two blocs and countries being asked to choose sides.

Tuesday: Can supply chains in China be shifted elsewhere?

Wednesday: The battle for tech supremacy

Thursday: How America turned hawkish on China

“If we don’t act now, ultimately, the [Chinese Communist party] will erode our freedoms and subvert the rules-based order that our free societies have worked so hard to build,” he said, speaking at the Californian library of Richard Nixon, the president who reopened ties with Beijing during the cold war. “The old paradigm of blind engagement with China simply won’t get it done. We must not continue it. We must not return to it.”

New uncertainty

For Joseph Nye, a professor at Harvard University and former senior Pentagon official, US-China relations are now “at their lowest point in 50 years”.

There is even a fear that, as in the cold war, the world could increasingly divide into two blocs — one that looks to Washington and one that looks to Beijing. That may sound implausible in a world of globalised supply chains. But, especially in the tech sector, there are signs that this is already starting to happen.

As the Huawei case illustrates, the US is now clearly leaning on its allies to cut tech ties with China — and, in some cases, such as in Britain and, to an extent, Germany, the pressure is working. China, however, is also building its own global network of influence through trade and its Belt and Road Initiative — which could involve loans and investment of up to $1tn in infrastructure development outside China.

Henry Kissinger, the former US secretary of state who helped bring about the rapprochement between the US and China in the 1970s, said last year that Beijing and Washington were now in the “foothills of a cold war”.

If China’s growing technological prowess has captured US attention this year, its defence capabilities are also driving the growing anxiety. China’s rapid military build-up has altered the balance of power between Beijing and Washington. The Chinese navy now has more ships than the US navy — and they can all be concentrated in the western Pacific. China has also developed a formidable range of missile and satellite weaponry that could threaten American aircraft carriers and disrupt the US military’s communications.

In a recent article, Michèle Flournoy, who is tipped as a possible US defence secretary if Joe Biden wins the presidential election, worried that “dangerous new uncertainty about the US ability to check various Chinese moves . . . could invite risk-taking by Chinese leaders”, adding: “They could conclude that they should move on Taiwan sooner rather than later.”

Since President Xi Jinping came to power in 2012, China has become more assertive overseas and more authoritarian at home

Ms Flournoy’s recommendation is that America should strengthen its military capacity, so as to restore deterrence. The fact that a prominent Democrat is taking this position points to an important aspect of the new US-China rivalry: it will not disappear if Mr Trump loses the White House in the presidential election.

There is no doubt that the current US president uses much more confrontational language with China (and indeed most countries) than any of his predecessors. Mr Trump’s single-minded focus on the US trade deficit with China and his protectionist policies are also distinctive. But Mr Trump may have helped to bring about a permanent shift in orthodox opinion in Washington. Daniel Yergin, an economic historian, notes that “while Democrats and Republicans hardly agree on anything today in Washington, one thing they do agree on is that China is a global competitor and that the two countries are in a technology race”.

A Biden approach to China would place more emphasis on American alliances than the Trump administration, and would probably make less use of tariffs. The Democrats would also look to work with China on climate change. But a Biden administration would not alter the basic premise of the Trump policy — which is that China is now an adversary.

Map showing how the topography of Taiwan makes Chinese invasion difficult

In Beijing, this move towards a “cold war mentality” is decried — and is often attributed solely to America’s supposed refusal to accept a multipolar world. It probably is the case that there is a bipartisan determination in Washington to retain America’s status as “number one”. But the Chinese view skates over the extent to which Beijing itself has contributed to the emergence of a second cold war.

Since President Xi Jinping came to power in 2012, China has become more assertive overseas and more authoritarian at home. Beijing’s construction of military bases across the South China Sea has been perceived in Washington as a direct challenge to American power in the Pacific. Constitutional changes that would allow Mr Xi to rule for life, the crackdown in Hong Kong and the mass imprisonment of the Uighur minority have all driven home the message that China is becoming more dictatorial — dashing any remaining hopes in Washington that economic modernisation in China would lead to political liberalisation.

Winston Churchill delivering his speech ‘The sinews of peace’ at Fulton, Missouri, in March 1946 is remembered as a key moment in the outbreak of the cold war © Popperfoto via Getty

An increasingly wealthy, illiberal and aggressive China is much easier to see as a dangerous rival that needs to be confronted. In public the Chinese leadership continues to decry the “zero-sum thinking” of the Americans. In private, however, the Xi leadership seems to regard the US as a dangerous rival, intent on overthrowing Communist party rule. As long ago as 2014, Wang Jisi, a well-connected Beijing academic, wrote that China’s leadership was preoccupied by “alleged US schemes to subvert the Chinese government”.

If continuing rivalry between the US and China is inevitable, how do the two sides match up?

It is generally acknowledged that the military gap between Washington and Beijing has narrowed considerably. But the US has a network of allies that China cannot replicate. There is no “Beijing Pact” to rival the Warsaw Pact that once bolstered the Soviet Union. On the contrary, other key powers in the Indo-Pacific region are treaty allies of the US, including Japan, South Korea and Australia. And India, while it is not a formal ally of the US, is likely to tilt towards Washington following the recent deadly confrontations between Indian and Chinese troops on the two nations’ disputed border.

US president Donald Trump, left, has made it clear that he holds the government of China directly responsible for the coronavirus pandemic © Andy Wong/AP

However, if America stood aside in the event of a Chinese assault on Taiwan, then the US alliance system might not survive the shock. Conversely, if the rivalry between Beijing and Washington never escalates into military confrontation, then China has other assets it can deploy. It is the largest trading partner for more than 100 nations; compared with 57 nations for America.

China is also a plausible rival to the US in a tech race. It is clear that some Chinese tech firms are vulnerable to cut-offs of key American components — in particular computer chips and semiconductors. On the other hand, China is ahead in certain technologies, such as mobile payments, and it is a formidable competitor in other areas such as artificial intelligence and medicine.

A scientific rivalry between America and China is certainly reminiscent of the US-Soviet rivalry, which was driven by a space race.

Vice-president Mike Pence said at Washington’s Hudson Institute in October 2018: ‘China wants nothing less than to push the United States of America from the western Pacific . . . But they will fail’ © Jacquelyn Martin/AP

Integrated rivals

But while the parallels between the current US-China rivalry and the start of the cold war are striking, there are also some important differences. The most obvious is that the economies of the US and China are deeply integrated with each other. Trade between China and the US amounts to more than half a trillion dollars a year. China owns more than $1tn of US debt. Important American companies rely on making and selling their products in China. Manufacture of the Apple iPhone is built around a supply chain based in southern China. There are more Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurants in the PRC than in the US.

This economic intertwining has also created a degree of social convergence. China may be run by a Communist party, but its major cities are throbbing with commercial life, private enterprise and western brands, and could never be mistaken for the grey uniformity of Soviet Russia. “Chinese society is more similar to American society than Soviet society ever was,” Yale University historian Odd Arne Westad noted in Foreign Affairs magazine.

There are also strong scientific and educational ties between China and the US. Mr Xi’s daughter was educated at Harvard. Stalin’s daughter was not sent to Yale.

China is also a plausible competitor to the US in a tech race, reminiscent of the US-Soviet rivalry driven by a space race © Aleksandar plaveski/EPA-EFE

Given the levels of economic and social integration between the US and China, some scholars argue that the cold war may not be the best historical analogy — although some of the other potential comparisons are no less alarming. Margaret Macmillan, who has written a history of the origins of the first world war, thinks the “more important parallel is the UK and Germany before 1914”. This was a classic great power rivalry between an established and a rising power. At the time, some argued that the extent of economic integration between Germany and Britain made war both irrational and unlikely. But that did not prevent the two nations sliding into hostilities.

Mr Westad, an expert both on China and the cold war, points out that, unlike the Soviet people in 1946, the Chinese have enjoyed 40 years of peace and prosperity. Therefore, “in a crisis, the Chinese are more likely to resemble the Germans in 1914 than the Russians after the second world war — excitable, rather than exhausted,” he says.

A yearning to test and demonstrate national strength is certainly visible in nationalist circles in China. Hu Xijin, editor of the Global Times newspaper, tweeted in July that China “is fully capable of destroying all of Taiwan’s military installations within a few hours, before seizing the island shortly after. Chinese army & people have such self-confidence.”

The Chinese navy now has more ships than the US navy, and they can all be concentrated in the western Pacific © Reuters

Another historical analogy, less discussed in the west but often heard in Tokyo, is the clash between Imperial Japan and the US that reached an endpoint in the second world war. As a senior Japanese diplomat sees it: “The Chinese are making the same mistake we made, which is to challenge American hegemony in the Pacific.” But at the time of Pearl Harbor, the Japanese economy was just 10 per cent the size of America’s. China, by contrast, now has an economy that is two-thirds the size of America’s — and larger when measured by purchasing power.

There is one further aspect in which the comparison between modern China and the Japan of the 1930s is suggestive. Imperial Japan argued that it was liberating Asia from western imperialism (countries invaded by the Japanese, such as China and Korea, did not see it that way). There is a similar hint of a “clash of civilisations” in some Chinese nationalist discourse — in which the rise of China is portrayed as ending centuries of domination of the global order by white, western nations.

The Anglo-German rivalry and the US-Japanese confrontation culminated in war. But they broke out in an age before nuclear weapons. By contrast, the threat of nuclear annihilation defined the cold war. Perhaps as a result, US and Soviet forces never clashed directly during the cold war, although they often battled through proxies. Yan Xuetong, a prominent scholar at Tsinghua University in Beijing, has argued that fear of nuclear conflict makes it unlikely that China and America will ever go to war — which would make the current US-Chinese confrontation more like the cold war, than the run-up to the two world wars.

Michèle Flournoy, tipped as a possible US defence secretary if Trump loses the election, said the US should strengthen its military capacity to restore deterrence . . .  © Mark Wilson/Getty

. . . suggesting the new US-China rivalry will not disappear if Democrat Joe Biden enters the White House  © Kevin Dietsch/Bloomberg

Strength of systems

But perhaps the most intriguing comparison is about how the cold war ended, rather than how it began. The contest was not settled on the battlefield or in space. In the end, it was determined by the resilience and success of the two societies — the US and the USSR.

Ultimately, the Soviet system simply collapsed under the weight of its own internal problems. (Ironically, this was the fate that Communists had long predicted for the capitalist system). The USSR’s fate vindicated the strategy first sketched out by the American diplomat George Kennan, who in 1946 had advocated the patient containment of Soviet power while awaiting the system’s ultimate demise. Kennan also argued that the vitality of America’s own system would be crucial in any contest with the USSR.

It is this last comparison which should disquiet the Americans and their allies most. The current presidential election threatens to provoke a crisis in the American democratic system of a sort that has not been seen since the 19th century. Even if the US achieves the peaceful transition of power that Mr Trump has failed to guarantee, the Trump era has revealed social and economic divisions that have turned America inwards and damaged the country’s international prestige.

A yearning to test and demonstrate national strength is certainly visible in nationalist circles in China © Thomas Peter/Reuters

The spectacle of the Trump-Biden contest has strengthened the sense in China that the US is in decline. Eric Li, a trustee of the China Institute at Shanghai’s Fudan University, inverts the cold war analogy — by casting the US as the USSR, in the grip of an “existential brawl between two near octogenarians”, referring to Mr Trump and Mr Biden. “Remember [former Soviet rulers] Brezhnev, Andropov and Chernenko?” By contrast, according to Mr Li, “China today is the opposite of what the USSR was decades ago. It is practical, ascendant and globally connected.”

For all the confidence of pro-government intellectuals in China, like Mr Li, there is no doubt that Mr Xi’s China also has significant internal problems. As Mr Westad notes, it is “a de facto empire that tries to behave as if it were a nation-state” and the strains are showing from Hong Kong to Tibet to Xinjiang. But the PRC has also demonstrated an economic prowess that the USSR never possessed.

If the US and China are indeed embarking on a new cold war to determine which country will dominate the 21st century, the vitality of their domestic systems may ultimately determine who prevails.





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Analysis

A pivotal moment for Scotland’s independence champion

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Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s first minister, has credited her former mentor and predecessor Alex Salmond with making her career.

Sturgeon’s appearance on Wednesday morning before a parliamentary inquiry into her Scottish National party government’s handling of harassment complaints against Salmond will be a potentially pivotal moment for her, and her dream of leading Scotland to independence from the UK.

At an extraordinary appearance before the parliament committee on Friday lasting almost six hours, Salmond accused Sturgeon’s closest associates of maliciously colluding to drive him from public life and his former protégée of breaching the ministerial code by intentionally misleading parliament — potentially a resignation matter.

Sturgeon denies the allegations. But the televised session must have made difficult viewing for the formerly shy working-class girl from Ayrshire in south-west Scotland who has, in recent years, helped bring her nation closer to independence than at any time since the 1707 union with England that created Great Britain.

When Sturgeon succeeded Salmond as first minister in 2014 — in the aftermath of a referendum in which Scottish voters backed staying in the union by 55-45 per cent — she was fulsome in praise of her predecessor. “Without the guidance and support that Alex has given me over more than 20 years, it is unlikely that I would be standing here,” she told the Scottish parliament.

But Salmond was hardly the first figure in the SNP to spot Sturgeon’s talent. Aged just 16, Sturgeon in 1987 timidly rang the bell of then SNP general election candidate Kay Ullrich to offer her support. Four years later Sturgeon was a veteran student campaigner and, according to biographer David Torrance, Ullrich was presciently describing her to party comrades as the future “first female leader of the SNP”.

Sturgeon, who describes her nationalism as more “utilitarian” than “existentialist”, has said her early interest in politics was driven by anger at the social cost and deindustrialising impact of the policies of late UK prime minister Margaret Thatcher and the powerlessness of Scottish voters to resist them.

After studying law at Glasgow university, she became a community lawyer and a rising SNP star. In 1999, she was elected to the new devolved Scottish parliament and by 2004 she was a contender for the party leadership. But she accepted the junior place on a joint ticket after Salmond, who had already led the SNP from 1990 to 2000, entered the race.

Sturgeon, right, with Kay Ullrich in May 1999 © Mirrorpix/Alamy

Robert Johns, politics professor at Essex university and author of a book on the SNP’s rise, said Sturgeon was a big factor in the party’s fortunes as deputy leader from 2004 and as deputy first minister of Scotland after it won power in Edinburgh in 2007.

“She’s got better and better at being seen as a normal human being and becoming likeable, while at the same time not losing that reputation for competence,” Johns said.

After playing a central role in the 2014 referendum, which the pro-independence Yes campaign lost by a much smaller margin than expected, Sturgeon took over an SNP energised rather than dispirited by defeat.

Today, the first minister enjoys approval ratings unmatched by any other UK party leader despite 14 years in government and a patchy record on key policies.

Voting with her husband Peter Murrell in Glasgow in 2019 © Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

An international education survey in 2019 found Scotland’s progress in narrowing the attainment gap between advantaged and disadvantaged pupils had actually slowed since Sturgeon made the issue her top priority four years earlier. And the SNP’s reputation for governing competence has been dented by serious problems with construction and equipment at flagship hospitals in Edinburgh and Glasgow. 

Sturgeon’s instinctive caution and mastery of detail — on display at near-daily televised briefings — appears to have served her well during the coronavirus pandemic. Most voters think she has handled the crisis better than UK prime minister Boris Johnson. While Covid-19 deaths in Scotland are high by international standards, they have been somewhat lower than in England.

But Sturgeon’s determination to keep a tight rein on the SNP and her reliance on a small inner circle of confidants, which includes her husband and SNP chief executive Peter Murrell, has fuelled discontent among some party colleagues. Formidable self-discipline was an ingredient in the once anarchic SNP’s rise, Johns said, but now the party felt “over-professionalised”. “It’s more top-down than it ever used to be,” he added.

‘The Alex Salmond Show’ on RT © Russia Today

Some in the SNP also believe that Sturgeon has been too cautious to take full advantage of a rise in support for independence since the UK in 2016 voted for Brexit despite 62 per cent of Scottish voters backing staying in the EU. Tensions in the party have also grown over her plans to make it easier for trans people to receive official recognition for the gender they identify as.

But it is the rift with Salmond that now threatens Sturgeon’s hopes for a renewed push for a second independence poll.

Relations between the two had already been tested by Salmond’s decision to host a chat show on Kremlin-backed Russian broadcaster RT when in 2018 two civil servants made formal complaints against the former first minister dating to his time of office.

In 2019, the Scottish government accepted that its investigation into the complaints had been “tainted by apparent bias”. At a criminal trial last year, Salmond was acquitted of all of the 13 sexual offences charges against him.

Salmond has accused Murrell and Sturgeon’s chief of staff Liz Lloyd of involvement in a “concerted” effort to damage his reputation “to the extent of having me imprisoned”. They deny the allegations.

Salmond and Sturgeon present the white paper for Scottish independence in 2013 © Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

Salmond has also accused Sturgeon of breaching the ministerial code by misleading parliament about when she learned of the complaints against him and by failing to report meetings between the two. And he says she has presided over a broad failure of “national leadership”.

They are charges that, if proven, could prove politically fatal, but Sturgeon — a formidable debater — says she is “relishing” the opportunity to set the record straight on Wednesday.

With crucial elections for the Scottish parliament just nine weeks away, her committee appearance could have a major impact on the UK’s constitutional debate, said Mark Diffley, a consultant on Scottish public opinion.

Polls suggest the SNP has been on course to go from minority to majority government, removing its need to rely on the pro-independence Scottish Greens for support on constitutional matters and providing a strong mandate to demand UK approval for a second referendum.

But securing a majority in the proportionally representative Scottish parliament is a difficult feat that would be made harder if Sturgeon was not seen to effectively rebut Salmond’s allegations, Diffley said. “She can, with a good performance, recover some of the damage,” he added. “It’s a huge deal for her — and she knows it.”



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Analysis

Can the lumbering US housing department become a force for change?

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One of Marcia Fudge’s first big battles as an elected official was over a shopping centre in Warrensville Heights, Ohio.

A developer wanted to build a hub for major retailers in the largely black Cleveland suburb, which has a population of 13,000. But Fudge would not have it. Warrensville Heights did not want “giant retail stores,” but office space and hotels, she said.

“We also control our own destiny and our own vision for the future,” Fudge, who was mayor of Warrensville Heights between 2000 and 2008, said at the time. “The days of plantation rule are over.”

Fudge won that battle and many others like it, and is widely credited for revitalising the area during her eight years as mayor.

Now she is being counted on by progressives to do the same in urban areas across the US as President Biden’s nominee to lead the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). The $50bn agency manages 1m units of public housing and oversees a vast array of federally-funded housing programs — from insuring mortgage loans to voucher programs for low-income families.

Housing reform is expected to be a key part of Biden’s efforts to support the black voters who propelled him into office, many of whom still deal with the consequences of decades of segregation and discrimination in America’s housing market.

Malcolm Glenn, a fellow at the New America think-tank, called Fudge’s appointment to HUD “a real opportunity” to make tangible progress on an issue where race and economics are tightly bound.

“If this administration and Secretary Fudge make racial equity, not just a core, but sort of the singular core guiding force around everything that they do, I think we’ll be in a much much much better place than we’ve ever been,” Glenn says. “I don’t think any HUD secretary has ever done that.”
 
Ro Khanna, a Democratic Representative from California, believes Fudge is uniquely qualified for the job. “She understands deeply housing inequity, she understands racial exclusion,” Khanna said. “[She will] really focus on equity in housing and anti-racist zoning laws and anti-racist policies.”
 
But to deliver on those hopes, Fudge will have to grapple with a demoralised agency facing dual crises. An unprecedented number of Americans face the threat of eviction because of the Covid crisis. And inside HUD, a mass exodus of career staffers under previous Secretary Ben Carson has decimated the ranks.

Congress slashed the department’s operating budget by 15 per cent last year.

Carson, a black surgeon who grew up in public housing, did not believe that it was the government’s responsibility to rectify the effects of systemic racism on the American housing market.

HUD also has a long record of underdelivering, and has sometimes been regarded as a backwater of government. Rates of home ownership among blacks have been largely stagnant since the 1968 Fair Housing Act outlawed discriminatory policies that, among other ills, made it exceedingly difficult for blacks to take out mortgages.
 
Even Fudge acknowledged its shortcomings soon after her nomination. “I don’t know that anybody can even tell you what HUD has done,” she said. “So I really do think that HUD has not fulfilled its mission.”

Fudge, 68, has lived in the same tightly-knit neighbourhood for decades. Her personal phone number is listed in the local phone book, and she drives her 89-year-old mother to church every Sunday morning, stopping first at McDonald’s for a cup of coffee.
 
Her success in Warrensville Heights elevated her to Congress before the end of her second mayoral term. But her ascent was also tinged with tragedy: she was elected to fill the seat of her close friend and former boss, Congresswoman Stephanie Tubbs Jones when she died suddenly in August 2008.

“She’s tough as nails and I have to caution her sometimes about being too tough,” said Jim Clyburn, the House majority whip, adding that Fudge is the first person that fellow members of the Congressional Black Caucus members confide in during a crisis.

During her time in Congress, she worked closely with the Department of Agriculture, an agency not often thought to be at the forefront of the fight for racial justice. But Fudge prodded it to expand food voucher programs, development schemes in rural areas, and for clearer labelling on food products.
 
She was actually angling for the top agriculture job when Biden tapped her for HUD instead. Last year, she told Politico in November: “You know, it’s always ‘we want to put the black person in [the Department of] Labor or HUD.’”

At HUD, Fudge has proposed boosting spending on housing, establishing programs to help Americans save up for mortgage down payments, and transforming a voucher program for low-income renters from a lottery to a guarantee for everyone that meets the requirements.
 
“Her style is not combative. She prefers to get along, but she’s not a pushover,” said Cleveland mayor Frank Jackson, who worked closely with Fudge during her mayoral tenure. “That means just don’t piss her off.”

In response to a question at her confirmation hearing from Republican Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton on what he called a “long history of intemperate comments”, Fudge replied: “Sometimes I am a little passionate about things.”

She is almost certain to meet further opposition. During the confirmation hearing, Pennsylvania’s Republican Senator Patrick Toomey complained that Obama-era fair housing policies were too costly and time consuming for home builders — and Fudge wants to go much farther than the Obama administration did.

People who know Fudge do not expect her to back down. “I think President Biden and his team want to have a slugger in that position,” said Tami Jackson Buckner, a partner Michael Best Strategies and sorority sister of Fudge’s. “She is someone who knows that without a home, it’s hard to fulfil your American dream.”



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Britons brace for price of UK going to net zero

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When the UK became the world’s first major economy to commit to a binding target of “net zero” carbon emissions by 2050, it had already made good progress with its electricity grid.

The rapid growth of renewable energy in the UK and the closure of many coal-fired power stations has cut the sector’s emissions by more than 70 per cent since 1990, and sent cleaner electricity to homes with minimum impact on consumers’ lives.

But as chancellor Rishi Sunak prepares to deliver a green-tinged Budget on Wednesday, and the UK gets ready to host the UN COP26 climate conference in Glasgow in November, experts are warning that decarbonising the electricity grid was in many ways the easy part of the journey to net zero.

“This year half the electrons supplied to British homes were green, but that doesn’t matter much to the consumer — the next stage of reforms and changes will be very different,” said Chris Stark, chief executive of the Committee on Climate Change, an independent body that advises the government on how to reach net zero.

The next leg of the journey will require consumers to adapt the way they live and, for those able to pay, also get their wallets out.

Hitting the net zero target will require sweeping changes in two key areas: transport, as the shift to electric cars accelerates, and buildings, where an overhaul is required to the way 30m homes are heated and insulated.

As the UK car fleet goes electric, the Treasury will need to find a way to recoup the £37bn a year it currently secures from carbon taxes, mostly fuel duty and vehicle excise duty © Dinendra Haria/SOPA/Getty

And the shift to low-carbon vehicles and swapping out of gas boilers for electric heat pumps presents the government with a series of delicate political and fiscal choices.

The projected cost is immense: the CCC estimates that annual capital spending largely by the private sector in greening the economy will peak at £50bn a year by 2030. That represents about one-eighth of current investment by the public and private sectors.

However, the CCC calculates that from the mid-2040s savings in operating spending — stemming in significant part from how it will be cheaper to run an electric car than a petrol-engine vehicle — will start to exceed the annual investment.

Stream graph showing that UK capital spending of about £50 billion a year is needed to hit the net-zero target, but it will be gradually offset by lower operating costs from deploying green solutions

The greening of transport and homes will create winners and losers, and the government has yet to clarify where the cost burden will fall. The Treasury has said it will later this year publish a net zero review, setting out in more detail “how the costs of achieving net zero emissions are distributed”.

For transport, which the CCC estimates will require £11.4bn of average annual investment over the next 30 years, the political pathway is easier than for buildings, according to Josh Buckland, who was an adviser to former business secretary Greg Clark and is now at consultancy firm Flint Global.

“Transport is to some degree a solvable problem,” he said. “Consumers can buy cars through financing deals, and so don’t have to pay up front costs.”

Still, there are political potholes ahead. As the UK car fleet goes electric, the Treasury will need to find a way to recoup the £37bn a year it currently secures from carbon taxes, mostly fuel duty and vehicle excise duty.

Stacked bar chart showing UK tax revenues from activities involving carbon emissions in 2019-2020 in billions of pounds sterling

The main contenders for replacing that revenue, said Buckland, are some combination of per-mile road-pricing and congestion charging — both ideas the Treasury has been toying with for years but shied away from for fear of a political backlash.

But far more problematic than transport, according to experts, will be the greening of the UK’s housing stock, which the CCC estimates will require £11.7bn of average annual investment over the next 30 years — and a massive shift in consumer attitudes. 

A 2020 poll by Energy Systems Catapult, a non-profit organisation, found that 49 per cent of people did not even consider their gas boilers as contributing to global warming — even though they account for almost one-fifth of carbon emissions.

The gap in public understanding is a huge challenge, according to Joss Garman of the European Climate Foundation, another non profit organisation. “Right now there is a big gulf about where the policy conversation is on decarbonising heat and where the public conversation is,” he said.

The scale of the necessary transition is also immense. The UK currently installs an estimated 30,000 electric heat pumps a year, while the government’s own goal is 600,000 a year by 2028, but to hit the net zero target installations will need to run at well over 1m a year into the 2030s and 2040s.

The CCC estimates that it will cost an average of £10,000 per household to achieve the target, with heat pumps priced at about £6,500 compared to £2,000 for a conventional gas boiler.

In its interim net zero review published in December, the Treasury was vague about how these costs will be borne, noting that they will be absorbed by households, property owners or the taxpayer, “depending on policy choices”.

Compared to transport, where an electric car is obviously attractive to the consumer, the political challenge of greening the nation’s homes are legion, said Buckland. 

“Firstly there is the upfront cost issue for homeowners, but also the consumer experience is different,” he added. “Gas boilers heat your home at the flick of a switch, whereas a heat pump takes 24 hours and heats the home to 17 to 19 degrees. It will require an attitudinal shift.”

Persuading consumers to spend money on heat pumps and loft insulation rather than kitchens and bathrooms will require a cocktail of grants and incentives, said Stark, which the government has so far failed to devise.

“There isn’t a technical barrier here, so much as the lack of a plan,” he added.

To drive change, the government could consider flipping the balance of energy taxes on to gas from electricity, which currently attracts far higher greenhouse gas levies.

Whatever the policy decisions, said Stark, the government will soon have to put some cards on the table when the Treasury publishes its net zero review before the UN COP26 summit. “To be credible it will have to spell out a clear plan . . . and that includes the fiscal choices ahead.”



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