The scale of Covid-19’s impact – the loss of tens of thousands of lives, profound social and economic consequences and the disruption of our freedoms and democratic processes – can dilute the enormous turbulence of the years preceding it. Political and constitutional turmoil, shadowed by the economic uncertainty and risk associated with leaving the European Union, almost seem normal in comparison. We have become accustomed to crisis.
Crisis is exhausting, and it has sapped our national optimism. We have become a more polarised and pessimistic country, torn by social class, geography and Brexit. The last Britain Thinks survey found that less than a quarter of people under 34 are optimistic about the future, and less than half the population feel we play a positive role in the world. The only unity was frustration with politics, with only 6 per cent of people feeling that politicians understand their lives and three-quarters judging politics to be unfit for purpose.
What does this mean for my work as a politician? The All-Party Parliamentary Group for Renewable and Sustainable Energy (PRASEG) is the primary cross-party parliamentary vehicle for working on and dealing with the full range of issues relating to phasing out fossil fuels and transitioning to renewables. This work intersects with many of the big questions thrown up by our national challenges: how can we build back better from Covid-19 in a way that tackles the social and economic insecurity in politics and prevents us leaping from the pandemic into a deeper, long-term environmental crisis? How can we re-energise politics to bridge divides and move us forward, not widen them and stall us? How can we realise a fresh, active, unifying role for the UK in the world after Brexit?
The answers to these questions can be found in our core work – the energy transition. That transition is well underway. The UK’s power sector has already reduced emissions by nearly 70 per cent, taking it further is the key to our recovery.
The Prime Minister’s announcement that offshore wind will provide 40GW of electricity by 2030 – enough clean energy to power every home in the country – is the kind of long-term, consistent policy signal that builds investor confidence and can underpin entire industries. That flagship commitment needs to be backed by a fleet of strong policies in industry and housing, as well as by the government putting its full weight behind nuclear power at Sizewell C.
Accelerating the development of low-carbon transport and industrial clusters – especially focused on electrification, carbon capture and storage, and hydrogen – will further reduce emissions, build supply chains and offer a resilient, dynamic basis for modern manufacturing.
A national housing upgrade – the highest standards for new builds combined with smart retrofit prioritising fuel-poor households – can boost the housing market, tackle emissions and help to eradicate fuel poverty.
These plans are ambitious – ambition with the right focus is a good thing – but the experience of PRASEG’s industry supporters, from Energy UK and ESC to Octopus and Cenergist, shows that it is well within the UK’s capability. The opportunities to chart this course are in the hands of ministers – not least in the Energy White Paper, the National Infrastructure Strategy, the Transport Decarbonisation Plan and the Heat and Buildings Strategy, all of which have been earmarked for publication before the year ends.
The kind of national net zero effort these policies would stimulate offers a political prize beyond that which comes with a stronger, fairer more resilient economy – it can start to bring us back together, as the shift to clean energy is something we all agree on. Polling for PRASEG by Savanta ComRes uncovered not only a strong connection between the views of the public and parliamentarians, but genuine cross-party agreement in parliament. The parliamentary consensus that passed the world’s first Climate Change Act and net zero law remains as strong as ever. It gives government the political foundation to think and act at scale.
Read more: An industrial strategy for the environment
A recovery programme underpinned by the energy transition can create hundreds of thousands of meaningful jobs – including in communities that have, since deindustrialisation, felt left out of our national story – bind us together in common purpose, and drive the country forward. These new jobs can help us “level up”.
It can also renew the UK’s international position. As the world’s largest offshore wind market, we are already clean energy leaders. To see net zero through we will need to overcome the challenges associated with renewables: dealing with intermittent supply; developing large-scale storage solutions; pioneering new innovations in wind and solar design.
This offers immense trade potential. Global net zero commitments will open huge new energy markets, not least in the US and China. Our knowledge and innovation will be invaluable. We will have the answers to questions that most countries are not even asking yet.
This all adds up to a strong diplomatic hand – and we should go all in. The UK’s presidency of COP 26 next November, the most important milestone in climate diplomacy since the Paris Agreement, comes in the same year we chair the G7. They are solemn responsibilities and success is imperative to safeguard against the spiralling threats of climate change.
For us, they should spark a commitment that goes well beyond the big moments. Climate change will become the central issue in international affairs during this decade – a prescient risk to the global economy, and fuel for the causes of conflict. Energetic, consistent UK leadership on the central strategic challenge of our time – rooted in the example and potential of our own domestic policy – can help both to rise to that challenge, and offer the basis for our global purpose, power, influence, alliances and reputation.
The horrors of 2020 will stay with us. The grief, the damage and the cost will be hard to overcome. But with the right approach we can emerge from it stronger, more united and more purposeful. If we do, history might look back on this darkest of years as a key turning point.
This article first appeared in a Spotlight supplement on energy and climate change. Click here for the full edition.