28 June, 2023
BusinessGreen by Sam Richards
On a warm September afternoon, 6 weeks before the UK hosted world leaders at COP26, Prime Minister Boris Johnson summoned Ministers to the Cabinet Room. He wanted answers: what were they doing to speed up the building of new sources of cheap energy, to make sure British manufacturers won out from the transition to electric vehicles, and to get us on track for our climate targets?
Opening the meeting he set out 4 key reasons why a Conservative government should move fast to reap the benefits of the switch to clean energy. First: building new sources of British clean power at pace was the solution to the looming gas crisis. Second: the transition offered the best chance to renew those parts of the country once famous for heavy industry that the Government had promised to level up. Third: the issue would only grow in electoral salience, and younger voters in particular wanted to know that the UK was doing our bit in the global fight against climate change. And finally: the small matter of avoiding worldwide environmental catastrophe.
Those four points hold as true today as they did in the runup to COP26. Indeed, the pressure on energy bills over the last two years has only underlined the need to build cheap sources of clean power as quickly as possible right here in the UK.
Unfortunately, the Government now seems to view the total transformation of the UK energy system as akin to doing the ironing. It isn’t going to be fun but we said we’ll do it; let’s stick on a podcast and hope it’s over soon.
This approach misses the opportunities for the renewal of our former industrial heathlands, like Teesside – which made the steel for the Sydney Harbour Bridge, and will soon be home to a gigantic factory manufacturing enormous monopiles that will be driven into the North Sea to support turbines powering millions of homes.
But it also misses the mark on its own terms. The Committee on Climate Change have this week set out quite clearly that the Government are failing to clear the bar of just hitting the targets.
In their latest progress report they write that their “confidence in the achievement of the UK’s 2030 target and the Fifth and Sixth Carbon Budgets has markedly declined from last year”. Crinkled shirts are draped over the sofa, unbothered by the suggestion of an iron.
Net zero is not one of the Government’s top 5 priorities. Yet there is a thread that binds net zero and almost all of the top 5 (the exception being NHS waiting lists). How do we keep inflation down in the medium term? We can start by protecting ourselves from energy price shocks through the rapid rollout of more sources of cheap British clean energy. How do we get the economy growing, and places like Teesside booming? We cut away the red tape holding back new clean industries like offshore wind and nuclear power. On debt, the OBR have been clear that there is far greater risk to the UK’s long term fiscal position through climate inaction than by early action. Meanwhile, the number of small boats in the channel will only increase as more of the Middle East and North Africa becomes uninhabitable due to desertification.
It’s not all doom and gloom – despite the Government’s lack of focus on net zero, the Committee highlights that some progress has been made on carbon capture and storage, a technology both vital for the clean energy transition and with the potential to create low carbon jobs in traditionally oily areas.
But as the US motors on with the Inflation Reduction Act, the EU introduces changes to planning rules like their clean energy zones to get building more renewables, and China invests more than ever before in new wind, solar and battery production, it’s hard to escape the impression that we’re stuck in the slow lane while the rest of the major economies race ahead.
It doesn’t have to be like this. We can’t, shouldn’t, and won’t try to match the wave of green subsidies crashing over the US economy. But we can at least give British firms a chance to compete.
The CCC highlight planning reform as a key component to get us on track. Onshore wind remains effectively banned in England. The planning process for offshore wind remains overlong and uncertain. It’s been 28 years since we last built a nuclear reactor. Lots of the policy changes set out in the Britain Remade Powerbook would not require taxpayer funding up front; indeed, they would unlock billions of private sector cash. There is low hanging fruit here.
There are of course parts of the transition that are harder – but the Prime Minister is not someone who hides from tough choices. And as we have done on clean power, are doing on clean transport, and will do on clean heating – private sector innovation will drive down costs so that consumers choose the clean alternatives because they’re cheap, not because they’re green.
The UK has cut our emissions almost in half since 1990 – a phenomenal achievement that we should be proud of. This hasn’t happened by chance – a combination of political leadership, targeted subsidy and smart regulation, alongside private sector innovation has delivered this success.
That same combination can deliver continued success on climate action, and good jobs around the country, over the next 30 years. But we need to remove the planning barriers and let Britain build.