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Rishi Sunak’s creation of the Department for Energy Security and Net Zero sounds the death-knell for the policy which occupies the second half of its name. Declaring that sounds a little premature. Only eighteen months or so ago Boris Johnson was the host with the most at Glasgow’s COP26 jamboree (before his hospitality required Sue Gray’s imprimatur). The Climate Change Act remains on the statute book.
But our Editor has developed a recent habit of quoting Kipling to tell a few hard truths to an ex-Prime Minister, and I shamelessly propose to do the same. It was in ‘Recessional’, his poem for Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee, that the poet suggested to those celebrating the high-point of imperial grandeur that “all our pomp of yesterday” would soon be “one with Nineveh and Tyre”. The same gloomy sentiment should apply to our Net Zero ambitions and our persistent energy supply problem.
Cards on the table: I think becoming ‘carbon neutral’ by 2050 was always an unrealistic objective. Nodded through in the Romulus Augustulus phase of Theresa May’s premiership without a vote by MPs, the colossal costs of rapidly decarbonising our economy were never considered. The policy exists de jure. Whether it ever can de facto is a wholly different question.
Our standard measure of emissions fails to include those emissions emitted elsewhere but are driven by UK consumption, claims of our success in reducing greenhouse often give an incomplete picture. Concerns over deindustrialisation are waved away with promises of ‘green jobs’ – even though research suggests decarbonisation will cost as many jobs as it produces. The hollowing out of our domestic steel industry due to high energy costs is an obvious example.
Johnson enthusiastically adopted the target in Number 10. Despite previously having been a fan of “the learned astrophysicist Piers Corbyn” and sympathetic to the view our climate has “everything” to do “with the caprice of the gigantic thermonuclear fireball around which we revolve”, he achieved more on climate change than “any Conservative prime minister in the last 10 or so years”, according to Sam Hall of the Conservative Environment Network (CEN).
Johnson has often flip-flopped on greenery. He touted his efforts to decarbonise London as Mayor, voted against carbon capture technology as an MP, and then lobbied against President Trump’s Paris-scepticism as Foreign Secretary. One assumes his enthusiasm stemmed partly from the heart, partly from scientific advice, and partly because making Britain the “Saudi Arabia of wind” provides plenty of opportunities for grand projets.
Whatever the reason, championing Net Zero became a stock feature of Johnson’s repertoire. MPs coveting the greasy pole realised there was no harm in flaunting their green credentials. They flocked to the CEN; we received a fair few articles on the good that Net Zero could do for various constituencies.
Readers may be aware that the political situation has changed a tad since Johnson was at his pomp. Not only has Sunak made his long-winded journey next door, but Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has landed the West in its worst energy crisis since Jon Pertwee was Doctor Who. These two developments have left the Net Zero agenda sitting as prettily as Madonna’s latest rear-guard action against aging.
Undoubtedly, many Tory MPs’ enthusiasm for Net Zero is wholly sincere. But my ambition theory was leant a little credibility by the outbreak of Net Zero-scepticism during last year’s summer leadership election. Party members did not share Johnson’s enthusiasm. With its leading champion defenestrated, upwardly-mobile MPs courted voted by flaunting their apostasy.
Suella Braverman was first out of the trap, calling for the UK to “suspend the all-consuming desire to achieve Net Zero by 2050”. Kemi Badenoch called a target “wrong”, and Sunak and Liz Truss’s past lack of enthusiasm for the agenda made its way into the headlines. Dodging the energy issue, however, is something no candidate could do, as prices spiralled and commentators (ahem) warned darkly of nightmare scenarios.
Energy was central to Truss’s agenda upon entering office. Unfortunately for Net Zero, if we think of the energy ‘trilemma’ as being the difficult task of balancing affordability, security of supply, and reducing emissions, the first two took priority. This was clearly signalled by her choice of Jacob Rees-Mogg as Business Secretary – never a zealous supporter of the green agenda. His focus was on capping energy bills and pushing for more fracking to increase domestic supply.
Buying off Chris Skidmore with a report on how Net Zero was a sop to an agenda that has been largely side-lined. Although Truss’s efforts to increase supply may have failed to get off the launch pad, Sunak is attacking the same problem from a different angle.
Whether you choose to include those generated by consumption or not, it remains the case that successive governments have been far better at reducing emissions than they have been at securing our energy supply. As Karl Williams has highlighted, opposition to new nuclear power, the squeezing of the North Sea oil and gas industry, and an anti-fracking lobby that prevented us from imitating America’s shale gas revolution have left us particularly vulnerable.
Rectifying this will be costly and time-consuming. Rather than balancing the energy trilemma’s prongs against each other, we have got the worst of all worlds. The fastest route for increasing supply has been through re-opening coal and gas-powered stations that had been intended for mothballing. That’s hardly good for our greenhouse gas emissions. Truss won her fracking vote – but an anti-fracking candidate’s victory in West Lancashire shows the lack of voter enthusiasm for overturning the ban.
North Sea exploration is being encouraged again – but the new windfall tax compounds years of under-investment. Johnson pledged 25 per cent of our energy would soon come from nuclear – mirroring the empty promises of successive administrations that have failed to deliver new reactors. Despite recent breakthroughs, fusion remains a distant prospect.
Sunak has ended the moratorium on new onshore wind projects, in the face of a backbench rebellion (and the odd unhelpful editorial), yet wind power remains problematic. We nominally have enough wind (and solar) plants to provide for our average consumption.
Unfortunately, it neither fulfills its hypothetical potential nor delivers when the wind isn’t blowing and the sun isn’t shining. Storing the energy in lithium batteries is six times as expensive as generating it in the first place. Lithium will be as essential to the 21st century as oil was to the 20th – but the Chinese have long since got the drop on us.
All of this leaves us rather stuck. The short-term demands of boosting supply will see us renege on our Net Zero commitments in the pursuit of oil and gas. The longer-term goal of increasing our supply is blunted by the same NIMBYism and navel-gazing that has placed us in this mess in the first place. A target of making Britain energy self-sufficient by 2045 is no easier to reach than carbon neutrality by 2050.
Sunak’s decision to lump ‘and Net Zero’ onto his new department shows the depressing way forward. A little cynical greenwashing is much easier than resolving our depressing energy dilemma. Without more domestic supply, we will remain reliant on fossil fuels for the foreseeable future. There are more votes in trying to keep the lights on than there are in going after greenhouse gases.
Perhaps Net Zero was only ever a handy tagline for those wishing to flaunt their green credentials without acknowledging the trade-offs decarbonisation involves. Our energy crisis has brought home just how profound those are. Johnson’s defenestration has shown just how lightly the policy was worn by many. Far-called, Net Zero melts away – and lest we forget just how costly this flirtation has been.