The former Environment Secretary, Owen Paterson, will this week demonstrate how desperate the right wing of the Conservative party has become in its attempts to force energy and climate change policies into an ideological straitjacket.
In a speech on Wednesday to Lord Lawson’s lobby group for so-called climate change sceptics, the Global Warming Policy Foundation, Paterson will argue that the UK should turn its back on renewable energy in favour of fracking and nuclear power.
According to the front page splash in the Sunday Telegraph, Paterson will call for the UK to weaken its target of cutting its annual greenhouse gas emissions by 80 per cent by 2050, as set out in the 2008 Climate Change Act, unless other countries enact similar legislation.
He will warn that the Act will require the building of many new onshore windfarms, and will ultimately result in power cuts for homes and businesses.
Instead, he will argue, the UK should aim to slow down the rate of decarbonisation of its power sector, and instead generate more electricity from shale gas and, bizarrely, by developing across the country a new fleet of small nuclear reactors like those that power some submarines.
Paterson, who was sacked from the cabinet in July, told the Mail on Sunday that the repeal of the Climate Change Act and a ban on new wind farms would make the Conservative party more popular among supporters who are being attracted to Ukip.
The title of Paterson’s speech, “Keeping the Lights On”, is the same as Ukip’s energy policy document, and Ukip’s communications director, Patrick O’Flynn, responded to the newspaper reports by tweeting: “Nice to see Owen Paterson commending Ukip energy policy to his party”.
Paterson’s intervention is clearly designed to rally the right wing of the Conservative party, but his proposals lack the coherence and credibility required to appeal to a broader audience.
His dogmatic rejection of the scientific evidence about the scale of the risks of climate change – he will point to the temporary slowdown in the rate of global warming to justify his complacency – as well as his opposition to onshore wind farms, forces him into an extreme position based on myths and misinformation.
Paterson will claim that onshore wind is both unpopular with the public and expensive for consumers. Neither is true.
While there is some local opposition in communities to the nearby construction of wind turbines, nationally 67 per cent of the public support them as a source of energy.
Similarly, the latest figures from Ofgem show that, of an average annual household bill for gas and electricity of £1330, just £41, or about 3 per cent, is due to the cost of the Renewables Obligation through which wind energy and other sources are currently subsidised.
The government has indicated that climate policies as a whole, including carbon pricing, are likely to add about a further £100 to bills by 2020, but this could be more than offset by energy efficiency measures to cut waste.
The main driver of the rise in household energy bills over the last 10 years has been the increase in the cost of natural gas, the majority of which the UK has to import.
It makes sense to explore the potential of domestic supplies of shale gas, if the environmental risks can be managed, but it is not yet clear how much is economically recoverable, and even optimistic forecasts suggest that it will not stop our reliance on imports or lead to a significant reduction in household bills.
Natural gas could help to quickly reduce emissions if it used in power stations instead of coal, which generates twice as much carbon dioxide per unit of electricity and is responsible for about a quarter of the UK’s annual production of the gas.
But, as the independent experts on the Committee of Climate Change have pointed out, the UK’s power system needs to be decarbonised by 2030, so gas-fired power stations beyond that date will either be used only sparingly to provide back-up to renewables, or else will need to be fitted with carbon capture and storage technology to prevent greenhouse gases from being pumped into the atmosphere.
Unlike Paterson, the Committee has carried out thorough economic and technical analyses of the UK’s electricity system and has concluded a broad mix is likely to be most cost-effective.
So without renewables, the UK will find it more difficult and expensive to reduce its emissions in line with the 2050 target of the Climate Change Act, which was set to allow the UK to contribute to the international goal of avoiding dangerous global warming of more than two centigrade degrees.
Businesses have praised the Act for providing the clarity about the future of government policy that is essential for unlocking billions of pounds in investment in a clean energy economy.
However, Paterson’s call to scrap the Act creates uncertainty, undermining the confidence of investors and increasing the cost of capital.
It shows that Paterson and others on the right wing of Conservative party have yet to identify a set of sensible energy and climate change policies that they will support.
Bob Ward is a fellow of the Geological Society and policy and communications director at the Centre for Climate Change Economics and Policy and the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at London School of Economics and Political Science