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7 July 2021

Why Britain’s timid green politics shows it is not taking the energy revolution seriously

The political debate about energy is still mostly defined by rhetorical blather.

By Helen Thompson

Since June 2019, when ­Theresa May’s government passed a bill stipulating that net zero greenhouse gas emissions must be achieved by 2050, ­British policy on climate change has ­become more ambitious. Yet the country still lacks a politics that is serious about the energy revolution.

There is general accord across the parties at Westminster on the Ten Point Plan for a Green Industrial Revolution, which Boris Johnson’s government introduced in November 2020. The plan commits the government to £12bn of public investment in green innovation to create 250,000 jobs. Labour’s only substantial criticism of the plan was to lament both the timing and inadequate size of the proposed expenditure.

In understanding how deep the present green consensus runs, the otherwise deeply divisive issue of Brexit is instructive. Britain’s departure from the EU ensured Britain had to construct its own emissions trading scheme. But there has been strikingly little pressure on the government to link Britain’s new system to the EU’s.

The absence of a contested politics over energy policy in Britain differs from other countries. In Germany, for example, the two parties that have made the largest electoral gains since the 2013 federal election are the Greens and the climate-sceptic Alternative für Deutschland. The decisive question around the federal election this September is whether the Greens will be part of the next government. Having led the polls in April, the Greens have fallen back, partly because their candidate for chancellor, Annalena Baerbock, suggested raising the carbon price for petrol.

In the US, energy is perhaps the most important fault-line in the congressional Democratic Party. In February 2021, seven Democratic senators joined with Republicans on an amendment that prohibits Joe Biden’s administration from banning fracking. This reflected the concerns of some Democrats who represent oil-producing states, such as Ben Ray Luján of New Mexico, about future job losses in the shale sector.

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The absence of energy as an area of political dispute in Britain reflects some of the relative advantages the country enjoys in the energy revolution. Unlike the US, Britain has a declining oil and gas industry. For four decades, the Scottish Nationalists saw oil as the economic basis for independence. But since the 2014 referendum Nicola Sturgeon has committed Scotland to net zero by 2045 – five years earlier than the UK as a whole.

[see also: The truth about climate change that no politician will tell the public]

Britain has also replaced coal as a primary energy source in its electricity sector. In Germany, however, the politician most likely to succeed Angela Merkel as chancellor, Armin Laschet of the CDU, is the premier of North Rhine-Westphalia, the heartland of German coal production. During the Merkel government’s fraught negotiations in 2020 to construct a medium-term plan to exit coal, Laschet procured a new coal-fired power station for his region. 

The easy gains Britain has made from the winds that blow off its island coasts and the absence of an anti-nuclear party like the German Greens are perhaps reasons why British politicians are not taking seriously what the energy revolution entails. The commitment to net zero requires politicians to make hard choices about how much fossil fuel energy will still be used that is then offset by carbon capture. It also requires judgements to be made on whether to invest in technological innovation and engineering infrastructure in electrifying the transportation and heating sectors, or to bet on hydrogen as a fuel to replace oil and gas.

Some choices are evident. The Green Industrial Revolution plan favours the use of hydrogen for heating and electrification for transport. But there will be no escaping the conflictual, class-driven politics that will intensify as these decisions are made. More electrification that involves increased solar power or onshore wind means much greater use of land for energy purposes. Electrifying road transport is likely to entail fewer car journeys and greater emphasis on public transport, cycling and walking. 

In recent months there have been some indications that a contest over the Green Industrial Revolution plan is emerging. In March, the shadow secretary for business, energy and industrial strategy, Ed Miliband, called for interest-free loans for low-and middle-income earners to buy electric vehicles. Conservative backbencher Steve Baker has warned Johnson that plans to force homeowners to buy new boilers could be as politically disastrous for the party as the poll tax was in the late 1980s.

But the political debate about energy is still mostly defined by rhetorical blather, whether that is Johnson’s platitudes about Britain becoming the world leader in this, that, or the other, or Miliband’s bromides about how “green and red together” is in the “DNA of Labour”.

What is also missing is any serious debate over the implications for British foreign policy in the Middle East, a region that is likely to become a significant source of Britain’s imported oil and gas (most oil imports at the moment come from Norway and the US). There is also little debate about the implications for Britain’s strategic orientation in a geopolitical world shaped by Sino-American rivalry and China’s position as the world’s largest carbon emitter. 

Until Britain’s politicians articulate substantial differences with each other over the energy revolution, climate policy will be driven by jobs and “levelling up”, rather than achieving net zero. Green politics will only have arrived in Britain when the parties start articulating competing judgements about which specific energy projects should be pursued and who consumes what volume of energy, and at what cost. 

[see also: Why the left cannot afford to be optimistic about climate change]

This article appears in the 07 Jul 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The baby bust