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The path by which Boris Johnson and Bill Gates came to be sitting next to each other on a stage in the Science Museum in London, announcing a new investment of either £200m, £400m or £800m for the development of green technologies (neither man actually knew the answer to that one), is an interesting one.
Earlier this year, Bill Gates published a book called How to Avoid a Climate Disaster. Gates is a clever fellow. In the book he explains how he’d spent a long time travelling around the world, looking at the root causes of carbon emissions, and what might be done to drastically reduce them.
He comes to some uncomfortable conclusions, not least that human beings, consumers, changing their behaviours – eating less meat, flying less – won’t make much difference. What’s needed are whole new ideas, whole new ways of doing things, whole new industrial processes, for example, for the creation of steel and cement.
They are also somewhat convenient conclusions for Gates himself, who spent a long time travelling around the world, researching his book, principally by private jet. He refers to private jets as his “guilty pleasure”. Okay, so he offsets it all. He buys “sustainable aviation fuel”, whatever that is. And he is also, fundamentally right. Abstinence isn’t going to save the world. Innovation will have to do it.
It’s just that some people think that a bit of abstinence in the meantime, while the innovation gets going, is kind of absolutely essential, as we’re already in a state of emergency. In much the same way that people with lung cancer tend not to smoke their way through chemotherapy (some no doubt do. It may not be unfair to speculate on their fate.)
But other people have guilty pleasures too. For some people, many in fact, perhaps as many as 50 million people in the United Kingdom, their guilty pleasure is their boiler. And they probably don’t feel all that guilty about it, because it’s not exactly a pleasure – it’s fundamental to their survival.
Alongside Bill Gates was Boris Johnson, who – back in the ancient, historic year of 2011 – was still writing climate change denial columns in the Daily Telegraph. When asked routinely about this, he likes to say that, “When the science changes, we must change our response”. He knows as well as a freshly orphaned polar bear that the science has not changed.
His big announcement, on the day he began his big PR drive toward the hosting of the Cop26 climate summit, was a £5,000 grant for people to replace their gas boilers with an air source heat pump. And when I say “people”, I mean, specifically, 90,000 people; because that is all the scheme, with its £450m limit, will cover, making it, on many indices, less generous than the various other schemes that have been scrapped and replaced by it, including the Green Homes Grant, which Rishi Sunak announced at the start of the pandemic, which to describe as a farce would be unfair on an actual farce, given it made Fawlty Towers look like a fly-on-the-wall documentary set in a friendly, well-run hotel.
But then, maybe 90,000 homes will be enough. Because, as boring people, boringly interested in the detail, keep repeating: there are really not that many homes in the UK that can just have their boiler stripped out and a heat pump put in. They require new insulation, in the loft, in the cavity walls and more often than not, under the ground floor floorboards too, which must be taken up for the purpose.
But none of that’s included. There is, as always, the danger that Johnson is just making the announcement, throwing the money at the problem, generating the headlines, but with no real clue what to actually do. (see also, raising national insurance to pay for social care.)
At the end of their little joint announcement, their bit for the planet done, Johnson announced how the UK government was “putting in £200m, I think Bill is putting in £200m.”
Bill was on hand to correct him that it was actually “four hundred each.”
It turned out that, actually, Johnson had been right the first time. £200m each, which rather tells its own story. So little effect will this miniscule amount of money have, that neither of them even knew what it was.
But oh well, they’d done their bit. Time to get on with their day. Boris headed back to Westminster, and Bill off to save the world elsewhere, one guilty pleasure at a time.