An unexpected alliance between Liz Truss, Boris Johnson and Ed Miliband is set to force the government to drop its massively unpopular de facto ban on new onshore wind developments in England. Green campaigners and billpayers should be celebrating, but they shouldn’t celebrate too much just yet.
As Miliband, the shadow climate change secretary, notes, the rebel amendment proposed by the Tory MP Simon Clarke, which Labour has promised to support, “swaps the ban for what is still a highly restrictive planning regime on onshore wind – risking blocking developments and keeping bills high”.
Labour is foreshadowing a fight on planning. When Keir Starmer, the Labour leader, made his pitch to businesses at the CBI last week, he quoted the frustrations of the CEO of a renewable energy company with the planning system and promised not to shy away from “the battles ahead on planning”.
This is because without major changes to the planning system, Labour’s bold plan for net-zero carbon emissions from power by 2030 is unachievable. It will require adding around 90 gigawatts of wind and solar capacity, building transmission lines from Scotland and the East of England (where the wind is) to southern England (where most of the demand is), and adding about 32 terawatt-hours (equivalent to the supply of about eight million homes) worth of new base load to deal with what the Germans call dunkelflaute, when the wind isn’t blowing and the sun isn’t shining.
Finance is no longer the key constraint on decarbonisation. Gas prices are at an all-time high, while renewables are more than cost-competitive and getting cheaper every day. What’s holding back deployment of renewable power more than anything else is getting permission to build. A typical planning application for an offshore wind farm now contains over a thousand documents, its environmental statement alone will stretch to 10,000-plus pages and even when consent is granted legal challenges are frequent.
The biggest challenge in delivering net-zero power is building the power lines to transport clean energy to where the demand is. Local opposition to the 137-mile Beauly-Denny power line in Scotland was intense. More than 17,000 objections were lodged to the transmission line, which was vital to the increase in onshore wind generation in Scotland. The whole process took nearly a decade, almost twice the time it took to upgrade the grid itself.
Labour is not the only progressive party that needs to win tough battles on planning to realise its climate agenda. In the US the success of Joe Biden’s hard-fought $370bn climate law depends on passing further legislation to speed up infrastructure construction. The energy analyst Jesse Jenkins estimates that 80 per cent of the predicted emissions reductions will be lost if the US can’t double the rate at which it approves and builds new transmission lines.
Britain will need to build new transmission at an even faster rate. John Pettigrew, chief executive of the National Grid, recently highlighted the scale of the challenge, telling the BBC “we will need to build about seven times as much infrastructure in the next seven or eight years than we built in the last 32”.
The challenge for Labour and progressive parties is that many of the laws and regulations slowing down the transition to renewables were campaigning victories for the environmental movement. Opposition to development may have been green when the majority of new developments were dirty, but more projects than ever before are now green. In fact, all but three large, major energy projects over the past decade were in renewables or low-carbon power sources.
It is worth remembering that the biggest threat to biodiversity is climate change. This isn’t to say Labour needs to sacrifice necessary protections for nature; rather it is about making sure that those protections for biodiversity are less process-driven and more outcome-driven. This could involve combining a streamlined environmental assessment process with a requirement for developers to contribute to major nature recovery projects. Many developers would be happy to pay more if it eliminated the uncertainty that plagues the current process.
Accelerating infrastructure approvals will mean better funding for planning agencies, collecting and releasing more data on environmental outcomes, and publishing up-to-date national policy statements – a task the current government has failed at. It will also mean financial incentives for communities that host new energy infrastructure.
Labour may be better placed to win this fight than the Conservatives with a voter base that is younger, more urban and more likely to rent. In other words, less nimbyish.
Labour has another advantage: credibility on green issues. Truss’s short-lived administration understood the need for reform and was working on proposals to speed up infrastructure delivery. The problem came when they lost the benefit of the doubt on the issue by pushing hard for fracking. Any attempts to streamline environmental impact assessments or habitats regulations were dead on arrival as a result. Just as only Nixon could go to China because his anti-communist credentials were beyond question, Labour might be best placed to win a battle on planning, which is good, because it’s a battle the party can’t afford to lose.