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  1. Politics
28 June 2023

Labour promises a green energy revolution – but does it know how to make it happen?

We need to hear the party’s plan for a step-by-step withdrawal from oil and gas, and we need to hear about it soon.

By Andrew Marr

The abortive coup, or whatever it was in Russia, is yet another wake-up call about the existential threats we face right now. A Prigozhin Kremlin is an even scarier prospect than a Vladimir Putin one. As in the 1930s, we talk a lot about preparing ourselves for a darker future; like then, until it’s almost too late, we will do very little. From the RAF to submarine protection, Britain is small-fry when it comes to security. The Tories will do nothing about it. Labour will do nothing about it.

The despair of senior military figures is beginning to leak out. General Patrick Sanders, chief of the general staff, said on 26 June that Britain had outdated tanks which he likened to rotary dial telephones in an iPhone age. Britain should “never again be unprepared as our forebears were in the 1930s”, he said, as he compared the rise of militant Russia to that of the Nazis. An important warning. But we will do nothing.

There is, however, another greater security threat that British politics may yet grasp. It’s hot out there, isn’t it? Britain, Belgium, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, Portugal, Spain and Switzerland were among the countries for which 2022 was their warmest year on record. Almost exactly a year ago, on 19 July, the staggering reading of 40°C was recorded in England.

Petteri Taalas, who heads the World Meteorological Organisation, summed up 2022: “[Last] summer was the hottest ever recorded: the high temperatures exacerbated the severe and widespread drought conditions, fuelled violent wildfires that resulted in the second largest burnt area on record, and led to thousands of heat-associated excess deaths.”

The science of all of this is well understood. We don’t know what’s really going on inside the Wagner Group, or whether we are about to see a further mutiny inside the Russian army. But we do know that sea-level rises would drown coastal cities.

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Will Russia really break up, as in Putin’s nightmares? If it does, in whose hands will those large nuclear weapon arsenals end up? Not even the most experienced historians and diplomats know the answers. But we do know that great, climate-driven migrations are already starting. From the soaring temperatures around the Mediterranean this year to the record-high water temperatures in the north Atlantic, only a witless ideologue could deny what is going on and the importance, as the scientists insist, of trying to keep global warming at or below 1.5°C above pre-industrial temperatures.

We will probably fail to prevent this as well. But the struggle isn’t over yet – not if politicians are challenged about their responsibilities. When it comes to the national debt to GDP ratio, or fiscal discipline, there is a great rumbling of media-political agreement about the importance of realism – whatever the social consequences. So where is the demand for stony realism when it comes to global warming? Why do we not ridicule politicians who pretend we can dodge the laws of physics as much as we ridicule those who would suspend the laws of economics? We should mock them more, in fact, because economics is far more politically flexible than physics.

This isn’t even a left-right divide. In mid-June Sweden’s right-wing government changed the country’s target from “100 per cent renewable” electricity to “100 per cent fossil-free”, allowing it to build nuclear power plants. Conservatives understand geophysics too.

The problem is broader: our instinct to put off what is awkward gets combined with a bluff “common-sensical” denial that the facts around us are, indeed, facts. Tories seem particularly vulnerable to arguments that run from “why should I ditch my classic Bentley?” to “climate change is a conspiracy”, via “the Chinese are still building coal-fired power stations”. When faced with something horrible, many of us prefer to look the other way and pretend it isn’t there.

Reasonable Conservatives and the opposition parties have to find better language and political tactics. That means taking a lesson from what’s happening among the environmental activists. Extinction Rebellion and Just Stop Oil have been testing the limits of public acceptance of disruption. The problem is that when you make people angry, you tend to make them stop thinking: you don’t open minds but seal them shut.

This is why the global warming-focused, and more tactically cautious, Climate Majority Project has recently launched. Urgency on the transition from fossil fuels isn’t sidebar politics, or hysteria politics, or minority politics. It’s about national security and it requires practical, fact-driven and state-directed policies based on a wide consensus. Again, what is happening in Russia is terrifying and we don’t know what’s really going on. With the climate we have a better idea and there is a plan. What is needed is sharper political leadership and practical clarity on our political choices.

[See also: Almost half of UK offshore wind is owned by foreign governments]

Let’s take one example. Last year, wind farms were the second-largest contributor to the UK’s energy at 27 per cent, behind gas at 38 per cent and way ahead of solar, which supplied just 4.4 per cent. The world’s largest offshore wind farm, Hornsea 2 off the Yorkshire coast, opened last August. Offshore, there are plans for further, huge expansions around the UK. Onshore, Scotland and England diverge dramatically. Scotland has fewer planning constraints and now produces 8.8 gigawatts of wind energy, almost equivalent to the country’s total electricity consumption, though some is exported.

Without effective battery storage, wind power is vulnerable to periods of glut and famine. The Scottish government is keen to use its surplus energy to produce hydrogen for export. But everyone agrees on the policy of decarbonising the electricity system. Britain’s Climate Change Committee modelled that by 2035, well over half of its electricity would come from wind – 42 per cent from offshore and 12 per cent onshore.

When Labour talks of its green energy revolution, this is what it means. Along with that partial U-turn on the promised annual investment of £28bn, we are hearing a lot more about ending planning constraints and connecting wind farms more quickly to the grid, all of which is good – but refers more to England than Scotland, which is already ahead on planning.

We need to hear much more about the step-by-step withdrawal from oil and gas, with annual targets to use less of them; subsidies for turbine and blade manufacture, where the UK is so far behind it makes you want to cry; and a national strategy for energy storage, without which the whole renewable revolution won’t work. Alongside this we need practical proposals on flood prevention, the protection of coastal housing, and helping vulnerable people during spells of very hot weather.

Above all the left needs to start talking about ownership. What do the following have in common? The Three Gorges Corporation from China, Vattenfall of Sweden, Equinor of Norway, the Abu Dhabi Future Energy Company, Ocean Winds of Portugal’s EDP Renováveis, Engie of France, Ireland’s ESB, Ventient Energy which is registered in the Cayman Islands, and Ignitis Group of Lithuania? Answer: they are all investors and owners of Scotland’s wind energy. Scottish Power itself is owned by the Bilbao-based Iberdrola.

It is a situation partly enabled by the sheer weakness of British industrial investment and leadership. Community-owned wind farms apart, we are in danger of becoming merely the territory on which the next industrial revolution will take place. An active strategy, which returns wind-farm contracts to British ownership when current leases run out so that the profits accrue here, would be a good start. And we need to hear about it soon.

[See also: Revealed: How the Cabinet Office sold Cop26 to corporate sponsors]

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This article appears in the 28 Jun 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The war comes to Russia