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  1. Environment
30 March 2022

The Tories are more united on energy than net-zero opponents suggest

Boris Johnson's government can use its majority to make the upcoming UK energy strategy truly transformative.

By Philippa Nuttall

The overdue UK energy strategy has been delayed again. Sources suggest it will now be published on Tuesday 5 April. Disagreements over relaxing planning rules for onshore wind, and how to finance new nuclear plants and energy efficiency measures, such as home insulation, are said to be holding up proceedings. For some commentators, this new delay (the strategy was initially due a month ago) is further evidence of Conservative Party divisions over the push to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050.

The Tory dissenters are a noisy lot. Jacob Rees-Mogg, the Brexit opportunities minister, in line with those of his fellow Tory MPs in the Net Zero Scrutiny Group (NZSG), believes fracking is a better means of achieving energy security than renewables (even though only 17 per cent of the UK public supports removing the moratorium on drilling for shale gas). The MP Craig Mackinlay claimed this week that the group boasts 58 members, though only 19 have been named.  

In response, the Conservative Environment Network, which champions climate action and clean energy, announced that it now has a rather more impressive 133 members, with Jeremy Hunt, the former health and foreign secretary, becoming the latest backbencher to join.

The existence of these camps has led to speculation about a “culture war” in the Tory party over climate and energy policies. Others, however, suggest internal divisions are overblown. They argue that with the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the majority of MPs understand that cleaner sources of energy mean greater energy security.

Leaked versions of the energy strategy suggest the government is thinking broadly along the right lines. The plans focuses heavily on targets that would triple the number of solar panels, more than quadruple offshore wind power and double onshore wind by 2030. If met, these goals would reduce reliance on gas and oil imports and lower bills. The draft also proposes a considerable increase in nuclear energy, which would entail significant costs.

Despite disagreements, momentum towards net zero is such in the UK that it can’t be switched off, believes Nick Molho, executive director of the Aldersgate Group, which works with businesses to build a low-carbon economy. But there is a danger that those questioning the cost and viability of renewables will delay action, he adds, and repeat mistakes made ten years ago.

“In the 1980s the UK was one of the first countries to trial onshore wind,” says Molho, but the government at the time deemed the technology “not very promising” and Denmark took over leadership. By 2012 George Osborne, the chancellor at the time, was questioning the costs of offshore wind and Tory MPs, such as Rees-Mogg, wrote to David Cameron, the prime minister, insisting “local people” should be able to “defeat unwanted onshore wind farm proposals through the planning system”. This caused a collapse in confidence and led many wind farm manufacturing companies to set up shop elsewhere, Molho adds.

The landscape is different today, Molho says. Boris Johnson favours the growth of onshore wind and many in his government, including Kwasi Kwarteng, the Business Secretary, believe the planning process needs to be overhauled to get projects up and running much more quickly. Exclusive polling for the New Statesman published on 9 March showed that even before the war in Ukraine, over 70 per cent of people supported more wind farms in the UK and backed them being built in their local areas.

The majority of Tory MPs also understand that energy prices are sky high because of the UK’s dependence on fossil fuels and get the need to accelerate the energy transition, says Bob Ward, policy director at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change. “Unless Tory MPs volunteer for fracking in their garden, it is dead,” he comments.

Likewise, the government can do what it wants to make North Sea oil and gas attractive, but it is unlikely that “major companies will invest in big projects” as climate action ramps up. “You might eke a bit more oil out of fields that are already being explored, but you would be highly peculiar or optimistic to think there will be high market prices in ten to 15 years.” 

Molho agrees that “the vast majority of the Conservative Party now recognises the clear alignment between climate change, decarbonisation and energy security. No 10 and the Treasury get this.”

Nonetheless, clean energy and climate campaigners remain concerned about the final version of the energy strategy. The government still “listens too much to a small group of people,” says Chris Venables from the British think tank Green Alliance. Johnson and his ministers should remain focused on the energy sources that are “cheapest and most cost effective” with the aim of lowering bills, reducing emissions and increasing energy security, he says. Solar, wind and lowering demand through homes that leak less energy fit this bill best. Onshore wind, for instance, is now six times cheaper than gas in the UK. Such an approach would also help with the government’s levelling up agenda, since decentralised renewable energy would create jobs across the country.

“I am a bit worried the Treasury has still not fully understood the economics of the renewables ecosystem,” says Ward. The government has already “twice bungled the roll-out of increasing energy efficiency”. It should also do more to “remind people of the financial and human costs of climate change” to undercut disingenuous arguments from the NZSG about the costs of transitioning to a clean energy economy, says Ward.

Involving local communities at a very early stage of renewables projects and potentially rewarding those that host solar or wind farms could increase public understanding, says Molho. In January 2021 Octopus Energy, a green electricity provider, started offering cheaper tariffs to households living in close proximity to wind turbines. The BBC suggests the government could consider including a similar scheme in its energy strategy.

While major targets are necessary, the government also needs to focus on less headline-grabbing details. Making sure cables are in place to take electricity from offshore wind turbines to towns and cities, and having the technology to store energy, are also vital and need support, says Molho. 

The real danger is that the anti-net zero crew “creates confusion and muddle”, says Ward. Delaying clear action on clean energy will help no one.

“The UK has been in the strange position of being more sceptical [on climate] than its European neighbours, but being more progressive” in terms of action, says Molho. The energy strategy could be the moment that any scepticism about clean energy and efficiency is left behind.

“It is the job of government to show political leadership,” says Venables. “With an 80 seat majority, this government is in a position to do so.”

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