It would be easy to focus this morning on Rishi Sunak’s visit to CO27. But that would be to peer through the wrong end of the telescope.
Climate change and energy policy go together, and fall into three main parts: reducing emissions, affordability and energy security. The first is a Westminster preoccupation. So the net zero target came about, conjured into existence by Theresa May. The second is a consumer necessity. Hence Liz Truss’s energy price support package.
The third has been neglected by successive governments for the best part of a quarter of a century at least. And Putin’s war in Ukraine has brought the vultures home to roost. John Pettigrew, the National Grid’s Chief Executive, has warned of “short rolling regional outages” this winter. This looks like the softening-up of public opinion before the power blackouts come.
Much depends on the weather – and the Met Office has said that there is a risk of a winter with colder temperatures and less wind than usual. Perhaps there will be blackouts and perhaps there won’t. But we shouldn’t simply assume that all will be well if the lights stay on.
Pettigrew has raised the prospect of businesses and households being paid to reduce consumption this winter, if dusting down mothballed coal-fired power stations doesn’t do the trick as fuel supplies drop. Who would stump up for the bill? The same source that forked out to help save the banks and fund furlough for Covid: the taxpayer.
The logic of the climate fanatics surely cheers this possibility: namely, poorer, frailer Brits freezing in the dark, as the lights go out in schools, care homes and perhaps hospitals. For Just Stop Oil read Just Stop Civilisation. The impulse for apocalypse that drives the zealots is wired into the human pysche.
Not so long ago, greater numbers of people came to terms with it through Christianity, whose end-time myth closes the Bible with the book of Revelation. You can argue the case for less religion either way, but one of the consequences is these modern flagellants – though they are making life less pleasant for other people as well as for themselves.
But the cultists are not the only reason, let alone the main one, why Britain has failed on energy security. We opened the world’s first civil nuclear programme at Calder Hall in Windscale in 1956. Whatever happened to the follow-up? The answer is bound up with a shift in consciousness that set the environment against technology.
The centre-right has always known that the two go together: that technological progress is the surest guarantor of lower emissions. Nonetheless, the reaction against nuclear power, like the fear of fracking, has had a powerful impact in a country with intricate planning laws, protesting consumers, an exacting Treasury, vibrant media, relatively little space – and green lobbyists.
Most of the former took against nuclear though some did not, appreciating that more nuclear means lower emissions, and that nuclear can work in tandem with wind, wave and solar power to that end. But nuclear is expensive and its waste is problematic and there was no war – not in mainland Europe, in any event. Hence the Blair Government’s “dash for gas”.
The only administration in recent years sceptical of the policy drift was what I call Theresa May’s, Part One – in other words, the interation in which Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill were in charge. One of its first changes was to absorb the Department for Energy and Climate Change into what is now the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy.
Timothy was a champion of the last. He wanted a department more sensitive to the industrial midlands and north. But the change seems to have proved the law of unintended consequences. Rather than the business element absorbing the green one, the opposite seems to have happened.
Fast forward to Rishi Sunak. One of the reasons for his strategic failure during the summer’s leadership election was a lack of imagination, if you take a severe view, or a sense of duty, if you take a kinder one. As Chancellor, he has seen the function of the Treasury as being to support Number Ten’s objectives.
There was a tension between its priorities, which demanded higher spending, and Treasury support, which required higher taxes (if the Government was neither to borrow nor cut instead – Sunak being unwilling to do the former and both, apparently, the latter). This eventually blew up, but that’s another story.
At any rate, my impression was that the then Chancellor was enthused neither by levelling up nor by net zero – which Johnson is still pushing, hence his presence at COP. During the summer campaign, Sunak paid careful tribute to the latter, signing up, like Truss, to the Net Zero target.
But he also signalled a willingness to strengthen the energy security and consumer protection legs of the policy stool – pledging a separate Department of Energy and a new Energy Security Committee tasked with reforming the market to cut future bills. Where is it?
The Prime Minister has clearly taken the view that, with economic and borders crises raging simultaneously, he has no political space to do anything other than fire-fight. Changes to the structure of government must wait. And I appreciate that the cynical view of SW1 is that such campaign pledges are little more than wish lists.
But politics pays a price when politicians break their commitments. So here’s hoping that Sunak is merely pausing before implementing his policy rather than chucking it. Mere tinkering with the Whitehall furniture would achieve little. But a department focused on energy security with the right Minister at its head could deliver a lot.
Maybe that’s Graham Stewart, who is Minister of State for Climate, sat briefly round the Cabinet table during the Truss premiership, but does so no longer. Our columnist John Redwood has been speaking and blogging about energy security to anyone who will listen.
Greg Hands has held the brief and pursued it with his usual, well, energy (appropriately). But personnel must walk hand in hand with policy. And Sunak’s promises over the summer stretched beyond an energy security department to making Britain self-sufficient in energy by 2045.
“As energy bills skyrocket in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, it has never been more important that our country achieves energy sovereignty, so that we’re no longer reliant on the volatility of the global energy supply,” he told the Telegraph in July.
It was during this interview that he promised to keep the ban on onshore wind farms but undertake an expansion of offshore ones. If onshore wind is out and fracking is out too, options begin to narrow. Maybe hyrdrogen will come to rescue us but no sensible government could assume so.
The Government is already considering delaying the closure of part of a coal-fired power station in Nottinghamshire due to fears about energy supply this winter. Centrica has reopened the Rough gas storage site. West Burton A was fired up by EDF in September.
Readers can see where these developments lead. Britain is committed to achieving Net Zero by 2050. Sunak wants to make us self-sufficient in energy by 2045 – or at least did so as recently as the summer. But wouldn’t hitting the last target mean missing the first – if we were ever on target to reach it anyway?