Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

There is no Green Agenda

fraser jf stewart
9 min readJul 27, 2023


Like any good disillusioned teenager living in a council estate in the early 2000's, I started smoking cigarettes just as soon as I could.

It felt incredibly cool to be 14, skiving classes with mates, puffing away and putting the world to rights. We knew it wasn’t good for us, smoke tastes rank and it makes you feel sick, but anyone who’s smoked knows that eventually it becomes more than smoking. You’re part of a community, an exclusive insider club of “fancy nipping out for some fresh air?”. It becomes habitual and soothes you in tough times.

After 12 years of smoking and a few half-hearted I’m-definitely-stopping-on Monday’s, I finally gave up in 2016, save for the occasional obligatory few after a couple of pints. I didn’t really want to quit at the time: I was fully addicted and had built my daily routine around smoke breaks. But it was costing far too much money and the health impacts were obvious. I couldn’t run the length of myself, my insides were polluted to shit, and I smelled bad although I didn’t know it.

To help, I downloaded an app that told me how much money I’d saved, how many minutes I’d added on to my life etc. In the first year of stopping, I saved over £2,000 — more than double the price of an average energy bill at the time. Not bad for someone who was seemingly always skint. I’d extended my life by about 25,000 minutes too, apparently. But the main benefits I felt were more seemingly mundane. Something nobody tells you about stopping smoking is how your sense of taste comes rushing back. After roughly one month, I ate a Polo mint, and felt genuinely overwhelmed. Like I could breathe again for the first time in years.

This is a metaphor.

Against the backdrop of wildfires engulfing Rhodes, holidaymakers being evacuated and 10,000 new weather records set around the world in the last month alone, you might be forgiven for thinking that our understanding of the urgency of the climate crisis was becoming clearer.

In the UK, however, our horizons feel frustratingly narrow. On the back of a rizla-thin victory for the Conservative Party in the Uxbridge and South Ruislip by-election, talk has turned to whether or not we should be rowing back on “green policies” and net zero more broadly. This is because the by-election, it is said, was won by the Conservatives (or lost by Labour) due to resistance to the expansion of London’s Ultra Low Emissions Zone.

National media have jumped on this line of questioning at every opportunity, with both Tories and Labour pulling tentatively in the same direction. “Green policies”, they reckon, are simply too much to concern ourselves with during a cost-of-living crisis. They are an unnecessary burden on top of the real issues that people face every day.

In reality of course, cost-of-living and “green things” are not separate issues at all. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is often cited as the catalyst for our cost-of-living woes, and to some extent that’s true. But rather than causing the whole thing, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has exposed massive pre-existing vulnerabilities in things that were already creaking.

Energy is a prime example. Energy prices have exploded out of control since 2021 because of the skyrocketing price of fossil fuels which also happen to be destroying the planet, while the companies producing them have gotten richer than ever before. In 2022 alone, Shell recorded $39.9 billion in profit — equivalent roughly to the total GDP of Denmark.

Overreliance on fossil fuels (with a dash of cynical profiteering) is why our energy bills have shot up, hammering people into being unable to afford basic needs, kicking off a further spiral of debt, arrears, poor mental and physical health, addiction, homelessness and destitution.

Without reducing our dependence on fossil fuels, the Office for Budget Responsibility estimate that price spikes like the one we’ve seen with gas today are likely to repeat for years to come, invariably penalising the diverse working classes the most — again and again and again. If David Cameron hadn’t “cut the green crap” in 2013, Carbon Brief estimate our bills would have been £2.5 billion better off over the last two years. Keeping us on oil and gas keeps us exposed to this massive volatility. Any long-term solution to cost-of-living that doesn’t include the words “renewable”, “just transition”, “electrification” or “energy efficiency” is thus unlikely to be more than a quick fix.

It’s not just energy either. Food prices are up because changing climate is making it difficult to grow the things we need. Looking across Europe, extreme heat caused by accelerating climate change has wrought havoc on crops, leading to a doubling in some wholesale costs since 2021. Cereal yields are likely to be 60% lower than last year and the lowest since 2007. This poses huge challenges to food security and pushes up prices for all of us, driving inflation, with many corporates seeing a chance to gouge profits on non-related items. This is by no means an exhaustive list.

Far from being separate or additional then, climate and our cost-of-living concerns are absolutely wrapped up in each other. Which is why so many “green policies” are so well-placed to tackle both issues concurrently. Retrofitting houses with e.g. low-carbon heating, solar panels and energy efficiency can improve the quality of buildings to bring down both emissions and bills. It can also reduce reliance on fossil fuels; improve health outcomes and create more comfortable, resilient homes. Clean, affordable public transport running in the interest of users can better connect people and places to job opportunities, nature and each other.

Beyond this, transitioning to a low-carbon society presents massive new opportunities for investment, industry and can generate huge amounts of new revenue for local and national economies — all of which can in turn help fund the social and public services, housebuilding, nature restoration etc that we so desperately need. All of this can come with jobs too if we’re willing to put the right training and pathways in place: the Climate Change Committee estimates anywhere between 135,000 and 725,000 roles from being more ambitious here. We’ve not done nearly enough to deliver any of this this yet, but even Conservative MP’s like Chris Skidmore recognise net zero as the holistic social and economic opportunity that it ultimately is.

We can’t think about green policies vs real issues as a net zero-sum game. It simply isn’t the case. The multiple overlapping crises we face in the UK and around the world have proven this time and time again — and many of the solutions we need are very much one and the same.

One of the big arguments we hear against delivering “green policies” is that it might make things harder for people who are already struggling. I appreciate this. Things will not be automatically fairer by virtue of being greener and, despite vast majority support for green policies, plenty people don’t have the bandwidth to make big changes to e.g. cars and houses and boilers right now. Certainly not without help in the form of subsidies and guidance, and that’s fine. For many there are many more immediate, personal things to worry about and we have to address those short-term too. We also know that any transition has to happen with social justice at heart. If it’s not fair, it won’t fly.

But the idea that “net zero” will automatically make all of us worse off or must inevitably penalise the working classes might just be the most arse-achingly infuriating myth we tell ourselves today.

Not least because the idea that any policy will automatically harm anyone relies on the weird assumption that we have no agency in policy or decision making. Who pays, who wins, who loses and to what end in the policies we design are all decisions we get to make. Injustice is not a force of nature. Inequality is not an inevitability — it is the result of decisions made by people in power. If we want to make climate policies fair, we can. We have to. That is entirely within our gift (or the gift of policymakers and influential stakeholders at least, which raises its own structural and power dynamic issues but makes the premise no less true). Thousands of climate justice activists, policy analysts and economists have been working on this for decades now. Give a few of them a call or better yet, hire them.

But beyond that, take a look around. Do things feel good to you? Living standards are through the floor. Wages have stagnated for over a decade, meaning that millions of people have had incomes cut in real-terms as inflation continues to rise. Houses (where any have actually been built) are leaky and unaffordable and renters are paying ever increasing costs to fund someone else’s doomed 7,924,538% 100-year fixed rate mortgage. The NHS is strained to the point of implosion. Good luck if you can get a dentist appointment that isn’t private within the next year. The UK is investing less than the majority of EU countries and all of the G7 on just about anything and the economy remains in the gutter. There’s shit in our rivers and lungs.

We can’t blame Russia for that. Meanwhile, the climate crisis continues to accelerate, devastating the lives and livelihoods of billions of people in those most affected places around the world.

Nothing about the status quo is working for real issues today. Not people, not planet. Certainly not the diverse working classes who invariably feel the sharp end of these social, economic and environmental troubles that show no sign of letting up any time soon. How much worse-off does everyone need to be before we admit that we’re actually living in the Bad Place? What are we defending here? When do we finally accept that things don’t need to be this way? When do we get to breathe again?

Initiatives such as the US’ Inflation Reduction Act are already making those big climate and cost-of-living linkages and seizing opportunities to make life better for people on a massive scale. Where’s ours?

We already know that we have to tackle the climate crisis. Even the most ardent right-wingers acknowledge it, albeit through caveats of delay and gritted teeth. People want to see the climate crisis tackled too, as polling repeatedly shows, including 57% of Conservative voters who don’t think their party is doing enough. It will cost money, but we know that anything we pay now will pale in comparison to the price of not doing so in future. A price that we’re all paying in the UK in energy bills and food prices and health and debt already; and the price hundreds of millions of people are already paying around the world with lives and livelihoods as a result of our inaction to date.

The economic cost of not doing “net zero” is now estimated to be 2x the cost of dealing with the impacts of climate down the line by the Office for Budget Responsibility, likely to be realised in adverse health and social impacts that hit lower income groups the hardest. We talk about the costs of action. The costs of inaction will always be higher and the longer we wait, the more expensive it gets.

We also know that the benefits of investment in tackling the climate crisis and transitioning away from fossil fuels to cleaner, more affordable, more planet-friendly alternatives, are potentially enormous in everything from health to energy to nature to jobs to economy and plenty in between.

It’s better houses. Cleaner air and water. Greener streets and towns and cities. Revitalised industry. Investment and businesses. More resilient communities. Better connected places. Flourishing wildlife and countryside. Money in your pocket and health in your lungs. There’s so much we can do here if we get it right (and that’s a big if). Far from a threat, taking radical action to tackle the climate crisis might just be the best shot we have at social and economic transformation in the 21st Century. The best chance we have to address the big issues we face and make things better.

It’s also non-negotiable to keeping global warming below 1.5C, protecting the planet, and helping those already devastated by climate impacts today — which is reason enough.

Again, this doesn’t mean green stuff will be easy or things fairer simply by virtue of being green. We’re not creating an overnight utopia where everything is lovely and everyone eats homegrown kale that tastes like fillet steak and nobody gets sad. It will be challenging. We have to make solutions affordable; upgrade the national grid and overhaul energy markets; build the workforce and supply chains locally and globally in a meaningful, ethical way; and rethink ownership, power and resources to ensure that the transition is truly working for people and planet first.

Which is precisely why we can’t afford to keep putting this off, lest we upset a Telegraph columnist somewhere. The evidence is clear: there is no separate green agenda. Not anymore, if ever there was. It’s on us now to act accordingly and take the opportunity in front of us. It’s time to breathe again.



fraser jf stewart

Very cool & handsome applied researcher, making clean energy work against poverty and inequality. Believer in big ideas. Scheme bairn at heart.