In defence of renewables

Huhne is right on climate sceptics and "armchair engineers".

WWF-UK yesterday launched Positive Energy, a report demonstrating that renewable technologies could provide the UK with well over 60 per cent of our electricity needs by 2030; and that we could do this without breaking the bank. The report was welcomed by a wide range of major companies, consumer associations and key commentators. Yet it comes at a time of increased anti-renewable energy sentiment in the media, to the extent that energy secretary Chris Huhne, speaking at the RenewableUK conference today, felt the need to directly rebut the "faultfinders and curmudgeons who hold forth on the impossibility of renewables".

Not only are renewables being blamed as the main reason for energy bill increases, but some outlets are increasingly arguing there is no point in the UK trying to fight climate change: the rest of the world is doing nothing anyway. "Let's focus on shale gas instead", cries the increasingly vocal anti-renewables lobby, claiming that this "wonder gas" will solve all our energy problems. These claims are inaccurate at best, downright disingenuous at worst, and should be seriously challenged.

Saying that renewables are the main driver behind people's bill increases could not be further away from the truth. The wholesale gas price, which rose by 84 per cent between 2004 and 2009, has been the main factor in increasing UK electricity bills by 63 per cent over that same period. Support for renewable technologies has, in contrast, represented only a small fraction of consumer bills to date. Furthermore, the industry is crying out for political certainty to drive costs down, belying the argument that we shouldn't support renewables until their costs drop.

By creating a low-risk environment with clear renewable targets and stable financial support schemes we can reduce the cost of capital, attract companies such as Vestas to invest in renewable energy factories in the UK, incentivise companies to mass produce renewable technologies and increase investment in R&D. All of these are critical to cost reductions -- and to job creation. Look at Germany, which already employs some 367,000 people in its renewable energy industry; something which the UK, which has seen the share of manufacturing per unit of GDP halve in the last 20 years, should surely want to emulate.

On the point that the rest of the world, especially China, is doing nothing to tackle climate change, that again is far from the truth. In terms of investment in renewable energy, the UK -- not even a top-10 world investor -- is playing catch up. According to a recent report from Pew, China is now the world's leading investor and installer of renewable energy, having ploughed over $54bn (£34bn) into renewable energy in 2010 alone;equivalent to the entire world's investment in the sector in 2004.

It's not just compared to China that the UK is lagging behind. Germany and Denmark are already heading towards a 100 per cent renewable electricity future and even Italy and France (well-known for its focus on nuclear) have substantially more renewables than the UK.

Saying that shale gas is the answer to all our energy problems is also fundamentally flawed. Leaving aside the environmental uncertainties around fracking -- such as groundwater contamination and methane gas leakage -- do we really think that relying even more heavily on a single fossil fuel (which already accounts for 80 per cent of our domestic heating and almost half our electricity) is a sensible idea?

Continuing to rely heavily on gas will take the world on a path to at least 3.5C of warming, according to the International Energy Agency. This is almost twice the temperature limit which scientific consensus says we should not exceed if we want to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.

Unfortunately, climate change seems to have completely dropped out of the current energy debate, which is a tragic oversight. Putting aside the catastrophic environmental and human consequences that climate change could trigger, the cost of adapting to a changing climate will absolutely dwarf any of the costs needed today to decarbonise our power sector.

Nick Molho is Head of Energy Policy at WWF-UK

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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.