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From an African perspective, Grant Shapps’s energy policy makes no sense

The UK once led the world in climate action, but now it is following others – and reluctantly at that.

By Mohamed Adow

In Kenya we look with interest at the activities of the UK. Despite the darkness of imperialism, the ties that bind Kenya and Britain remain strong. This is why it was utterly disappointing for us to see that the UK government’s recent energy and climate policy announcements pose a direct threat to our safety and prosperity. We are following developments in the UK closely, and with dread.

The plans published on Thursday, originally billed as a “Green Day” by the government, leave a bitter taste for those of us hoping to see the UK offering global leadership in the fight against climate change.

Large swathes of Kenya and her East African neighbours are reeling from the horror of a protracted drought that has devastated lives and livelihoods. Climate breakdown is not a future problem for us; it is right here and now. This is partly why Kenya, despite emitting hardly any of the carbon dioxide that is driving the climate crisis, has an electricity mix which is 92 per cent renewable and a target for it to be 100 per cent renewable by 2030.

So it’s galling to see the recent decisions by Grant Shapps, the Energy Security and Net Zero Secretary, rolling out an uninspiring list of reheated policies that bet largely on unproven carbon capture and storage technology to expand the burning of more fossil fuels. The UK government is in the process of handing out further licences for oil and gas exploration in the North Sea despite the warning by the International Energy Agency that no new oil and gas fields should be developed if the world is to meet its goal of reaching net-zero by 2050. It is a slap in the face of Kenya and other vulnerable countries.

[See also: Not Zero: Meet the world’s aspiring new oil nations]

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Renewables should have been at the heart of the UK’s net-zero strategy. They are the cheapest and fastest way to cut carbon emissions while also creating new forms of homegrown energy. In Kenya we have the largest wind farm in Africa, the 310MW Lake Turkana Wind Power Project, and yet the UK, which Boris Johnson once said could become “the Saudi Arabia of wind” has an effective ban on onshore wind turbines.

Such wind projects have the backing of the British public. More than three quarters support the building of new onshore wind in their local area. Polling shows support for more onshore wind in every constituency in Britain, in some cases strongest among Conservative voters, with 81 per cent of 2019 Tory voters in one survey backing a wind or solar farm in their area. Yet last year, dominated by a cost-of-living crisis driven by high oil and gas prices, only two onshore wind turbines were built in England.

The dash for North Sea oil and gas won’t even really benefit the UK. It’s not a nationalised industry. The oil and gas is owned not by the UK public but private companies and sold on the international market to the highest bidder. What tax revenues the UK once enjoyed from extraction have been cut to the bone by the government through massive tax breaks for fossil fuel companies. This amounts to a major state subsidy to accelerate the climate crisis.

It is not just Kenya that is embracing the benefits of renewables. The US has its Inflation Reduction Act, a $370bn plan that will boost investment in clean energy. The EU and China are responding with major stimulus packages of their own. Last week’s announcements from Rishi Sunak’s government contained no new government spending on renewable energy. In the battle for the green technologies of the future, the UK has not even brought a knife to a gun fight, it has brought a toothpick.

For us Africans, net zero is not just about the creation of green jobs. It is a matter of life and death. We are doing our best, but we need to see much more proactive climate action from our allies, especially in the global north.

It is unfortunate that the UK, which once led the world in climate action, is now following others – and reluctantly at that. Surely Britain can do better.

[See also: How Fitz de Souza became a “Maker of the Nation” in Kenya]

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