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What would a Labour-SNP deal mean for energy policy?

If the SNP do hold the balance of power, it will be energy policy where it has the biggest consequences.

Tucked away in the innards of the Scottish National Party’s General Election manifesto are a few phrases about energy and climate change policy that might turn out to have profound implications for both Scotland and the rest of the UK.

“The additional investment we seek should include investment in our energy infrastructure so we can continue to maximise renewables generation, in particular offshore” is one.

“We will support lower energy bills for consumers by pushing for the Energy Company Obligation to be funded through general taxation and not as a levy on energy bills” is another.

Perhaps the most profound is “We will use our influence at Westminster to ensure the UK matches, and supports, Scotland’s ambitious commitments to carbon reduction.” 

The potential significance of these phrases will only come to be realised firstly if the election results in a Miliband premiership supported by the SNP, and secondly if the SNP seriously follows through on these components of the manifesto.

If it does, we will end up in 2020 with a UK profoundly transformed – where energy efficiency is improved in both domestic and industrial applications, and where the march to an electricity network based on renewable energy is re-invigorated rather than stalled.

 

Logic for change

 

To understand why the SNP has put these strands in its manifesto and how they might play out, we need a little context.

Pre-referendum, the SNP’s main pitch relating to energy was that an independent Scotland could base its future economy on North Sea oil and gas.

The economics looked dodgy even then. But given the recent slump in the international price of oil and gas – and given indications that the price might fall much lower still if Iran returns to the international fold – this strategy increasingly looks akin to putting your life savings on a hobbled skewbald in the 3.35 at Musselburgh.

Amid all the rumpus surrounding North Sea oil and gas, fracking and wind farms, it’s easy to miss the really profound fact that in the electricity system, Scotland is already nearly a fossil fuel-free nation.

The only significant coal-fired power station, at Longannet, is due to close next year. That will leave just one major gas-fired station, at Peterhead – sustained by a National Grid contract to supply backup power – and a few much smaller coal and gas stations in remoter locations. 

It is equally clear that no new nuclear reactors will be countenanced north of the border.

Which leaves renewables as by far the dominant supplier of electricity. 

They already providing nearly half of Scotland’s power, and are set to generate 100% of consumption by 2020 or shortly thereafter. Beyond that, adding more renewables means being able to sell more and more electricity to the Sassenachs – which looks a far more reliable source of revenue right now than oil and gas.

But current policies would slow renewables progress in the next couple of years. Electricity market reform has reduced funding from Westminster, and prevented Holyrood from offering top-up subsidies. And on support beyond 2020, investors are offered nary a clue.

Hence the SNP manifesto pledge to seek “additional investment” that will enable Scotland to “continue to maximise renewables generation”. Plus, of course,maximising renewables companies, jobs and supply chain.

 

Efficient transformation

 

Cutting energy waste should obviously be the first move in any programme to reduce emissions – not least because it also reduces bills and improves energy security.  

But you wouldn’t guess that from looking at policies enacted by the Coalition. The Green Deal has been, according to its former champion Greg Barker, a “big mistake”. And the Committee on Climate Change, the government’s statutory advisor, says euphemistically that progress in the commercial sector has been “limited”.

Improving energy efficiency by insulating homes also reduces fuel poverty, which is about four times more prevalent in Scotland than in the UK as a whole.

So for the SNP, accelerating energy efficiency improvements has a political appeal in addition to being achievable policy.

There are many ways it could be done. Labour is pledging a major initiative that could improve five million homes – and the SNP’s idea of funding the ECO scheme, which helps some of the poorest households, from taxation rather than energy bills seems entirely congruent.

 

Climate of ambition

 

The most eye-catching – and least anticipated – of the SNP’s pledges is to put the UK’s carbon reduction commitments on a par with Scotland’s.

In the long run, there’s no difference between them; but in the short-term, the difference is profound. Rather than cutting carbon emissions by 34% from 1990 levels by 2020, the UK would adopt the current Scottish target of 42%.

Securing this as a new target during 2015 would deliver a huge boost to prospects of securing a global climate change agreement at December’s summit in Paris, nudging the UK ahead of Germany in carbon-cutting commitments and single-handedly delivering a golden British dollop of unanticipated ambition to the UN negotiations.

However, meeting it would require a step-change in commitment to decarbonisation programmes in many sectors, not just energy. And it would require delivery in just a single Parliamentary term.

Which is why it is the most profound of these three SNP asks – and the one at which Labour would be most likely to baulk.

The electoral dice have of course yet to roll, and Nicola Sturgeon’s troops may end up holding no more power than the Pirate Party. 

But if they do, and if they are serious about this agenda, the UK is set for a major transformation – and Labour for some hard questions.

 

HEINZ BAUMANN/GALLERY STOCK
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With the BBC Food’s collection under threat, here's how to make the most of online recipes

Do a bit of digging, trust your instincts – and always read the comments.

I don’t think John Humphrys is much of a chef. Recently, as his Today co-presenter Mishal Husain was discussing the implications of the BBC’s decision to axe its Food website (since commuted to transportation to the Good Food platform, run by its commercial arm), sharp-eared listeners heard the Humph claim that fewer recipes on the web could only be a good thing. “It would make it easier!” he bellowed in the background. “We wouldn’t have to choose between so many!”

Husain also seemed puzzled as to why anyone would need more than one recipe for spaghetti bolognese – but, as any keen cook knows, you can never have too many different takes on a dish. Just as you wouldn’t want to get all your news from a single source, it would be a sad thing to eat the same bolognese for the rest of your life. Sometimes only a molto autentico version, as laid down by a fierce Italian donna, rich with tradition and chopped liver, will do – and sometimes, though you would never admit it in a national magazine, you crave the comfort of your mum’s spag bol with grated cheddar.

The world wouldn’t starve without BBC Food’s collection but, given that an online search for “spaghetti bolognese recipe” turns up about a million results, it would have been sad to have lost one of the internet’s more trustworthy sources of information. As someone who spends a large part of each week researching and testing recipes, I can assure you that genuinely reliable ones are rarer than decent chips after closing time. But although it is certainly the only place you’ll find the Most Haunted host Yvette Fielding’s kedgeree alongside Heston Blumenthal’s snail porridge, the BBC website is not the only one that is worth your time.

The good thing about newspaper, magazine and other commercial platforms is that most still have just enough budget to ensure that their recipes will have been made at least twice – once by the writer and once for the accompanying photographs – though sadly the days when everyone employed an independent recipe tester are long gone. Such sites also often have sufficient traffic to generate a useful volume of comments. I never make a recipe without scrolling down to see what other people have said about it. Get past the “Can’t wait to make this!” brigade; ignore the annoying people who swap baked beans for lentils and then complain, “This is nothing like dhal”; and there’s usually some sensible advice in there, too.

But what about when you leave the safety of the big boys and venture into the no man’s land of the personal blog? How do you separate the wheat from the chaff and find a recipe that actually works? You can often tell how much work a writer has put in by the level of detail they go into: if they have indicated how many people it serves, or where to find unusual ingredients, suggested possible tweaks and credited their original sources, they have probably made the dish more than once. The photography is another handy clue. You don’t have to be Annie Leibovitz to provide a good idea of what the finished dish ought to look like.

Do a bit of digging as part of your prep. If you like the look of the rest of the site, the author’s tastes will probably chime with your own. And always, always, wherever the recipe is from, read it all the way through, even before you order the shopping. There is nothing more annoying than getting halfway through and then realising that you need a hand blender to finish the dish, just as the first guest arrives.

Above all, trust your instincts. If the cooking time seems far too short, or the salt content ridiculously high, it probably is, so keep an eye on that oven, check that casserole, keep tasting that sauce. As someone who once published a magic mince pie recipe without any sugar, I’m living proof that, occasionally, even the very best of us make mistakes. 

Felicity Cloake is the New Statesman’s food columnist. Her latest book is The A-Z of Eating: a Flavour Map for Adventurous Cooks.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad