What’s going wrong with politics and energy – and how to fix it

Change is always tricky, but it's far from impossible, writes Green Alliance's Alastair Harper.

Uncertainty over the government’s position on our energy future is costing us. One senior Conservative figure, deeply frustrated by the situation, confided that interest rates on energy projects have increased by 15 per cent over the last few weeks, entirely because of Westminster’s energyshambles. That kind of financing leap adds up – and features later on our bills.

Changing our infrastructure is hard. It means changing things not just for those who provide it, but for the people who use it. It is a big challenge that costs and can confuse. Look at what happened recently in broadcasting – we moved from an analogue format to a digital one. A relatively minor shift in the mode of transmission, but what an effort it took.

It wasn’t just about changing our televisions. It meant changing everything from the cables in the ground to the satellites in space. Because of this, it meant changing things not just in the UK, but around the world. But it worked. How?

First, a global agreement was reached as to when the switchover should happen. Six years ago, a deadline of 17 June 2015 was registered with the United Nations. 

Each nation then agreed its domestic target for achieving the switchover – Netherlands was first in 2006, while the UK finished a few weeks ago on 24 October 2012. 

The government spent a considerable amount of money helping people with this change, overseen by an independent body of experts in the form of Digital UK. But such was the rigour and certainty with which the government went about the process (empowered by cross-party support) that it ended up costing less than expected.

You would think that a demonstrable improvement shouldn’t need government interference: the market should take care of itself. But manufacturers need coordinated targets to tell them when a product becomes redundant and new ones are needed. Retailers need to know what they should be stocking when. During the digital switchover, a clear line of direction helped the public and business to bring about a complex change together on time and under budget.

This was a huge programme of change – from making sure a regional care home had a functional communal telly, to sending new satellites into space. And this was all done not for anything as dramatic as saving the planet - just to offer a better product. 

So why is it so much more difficult for something much more important like the switch to low carbon energy? Why the newspaper headlines? Why the controversy? Why the mess?

Much of the structure is already in place. We have, as we did with the digital switchover, a nonbinding UN agreement on decarbonisation. It’s not enough, of course, but as China reduces its emissions by 15 per cent in five years, we can’t pretend not to be part of a global process.

We have a firm domestic target – an 80 per cent reduction in emissions by 2050 as set out in the Climate Change Act.

We have the independent experts to achieve that goal in the form of the Committee on Climate Change. 

Everything should be in place to achieve the change we need, so why does it feel like something’s going wrong? It’s the politics. 

We had a target, but the politicians argued about how to meet it. We had advisers, but the politicians argued about what they advised. 

As no one knows what the direction of travel is, the costs are going up. They go up as government whips secretly support rival parties. They go up as one department calls for a gas-led future and another says it will have a limited role. When one minister says an energy technology is done, and his boss says he is wrong. This is all despite huge public support for renewables – in fact, a recent analysis showed Conservative voters want more wind, not less.

That is why business is so cross. That is why everyone from Siemens to Alstom to Virgin to Marks and Spencers to National Grid to Microsoft to Edf to Unilever  and many, many more have said we need more certainty. As Mike Barry of M&S recently said: “the certainty of the Climate Change Act has been replaced.”

At the moment, under the Climate Change Act, we only have a target for greenhouse gas emissions across the economy– everything from agriculture to refrigeration. These are all pillars, holding up the structure of our decarbonisation plan. In an ideal world we wouldn’t need a target for any one particular pillar, but a crucial one is currently looking very wobbly indeed – our electricity generation. If we don’t succeed in decarbonising electricity, everything else will have to meet much higher targets, making everything much more expensive.

As with digital switchover, as with the rail revolution, as with decimalisation, our country has prepared itself for a big change to the status quo. We should be busy achieving the change. We shouldn’t need extra frameworks  – but our politicians have let us down. We now need our politicians to show they are capable of giving businesses the structure they need to deliver without them, by listening to what those companies have told them and putting in place a clear figure on how much carbon can be in our electricity mix by 2030. 

A solar thermal generator in California's Mojave desert. Photograph: Getty Images

Alastair Harper is Head of Politics for Green Alliance UK

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Free movement isn't free: the truth about EU immigration

The UK does not need to leave the single market to restrict European migration - it already can.

In the Brext negotiations, the government has unashamedly prioritised immigration control over the economy. The UK must leave the single market, ministers say, in order to restrict free movement. For decades, they lament, European immigration has been "uncontrolled", making it impossible to meet the government's target of reducing net migration to "tens of thousands" a year.

It's worth noting that non-EU immigration alone (which ministers can limit) remains more than ten times this level (owing to the economic benefits). But more importantly, liberals and conservatives alike talk of "free movement" as if it is entirely free - it isn't.

Though EU citizens are initially permitted to live in any member state, after three months they must prove that they are working (employed or self-employed), a registered student or have "sufficient resources" (savings or a pension) to support themselves and not be "a burden on the benefits system". Far from being unconditional, then, the right to free movement is highly qualified.

The irony is that the supposedly immigration-averse UK has never enforced these conditions. Even under Theresa May, the Home Office judged that the cost of recording entry and exit dates was too high. Since most EU migrants are employed (and contribute significantly more in taxes than they do in benefits), there was no economic incentive to do so.

For some Brexiteers, of course, a job is not adequate grounds for an immigrant to remain. But even beyond implementing existing law, there is potential for further reform of free movement - even within the single market.

As Nick Clegg recently noted, shortly after the referendum, "a number of senior EU figures" were exploring a possible trade-off: "a commitment by the UK to pursue the least economically disruptive Brexit by maintaining participation in the single market and customs union, in return for a commitment to the reform of freedom of movement, including an 'emergency brake' on unusually high levels of intra-EU immigration." Liechtenstein, a member of the single market, has recently imposed quotas on EU migrants.

Yet with some exceptions, these facts are rarely heard in British political debate. Many Labour MPs, like their Conservative counterparts, support single market withdrawal to end free movement. The unheard truth that it isn't "free" could yet lead the UK to commit an avoidable act of economic self-harm.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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