Sir John Redwood is MP for Wokingham, and is a former Secretary of State for Wales.
Both the Government and Opposition are very keen on the UK leading the world at reducing carbon dioxide emissions. Since 1990, under the agreed way of accounting for these matters, the UK has succeeded in doing so.
From here, however, the task gets more difficult. According to conventional wisdom it requires big changes in people’s behaviour, switching to electric cars, heat pumps and low- (or no-) meat diets. Thus, it is important we review how effective, in their own terms, these suggested policies are.
For example, I recently asked ministers and shadow ministers how more purchases of battery cars would cut carbon dioxide as these new vehicles will need recharging with fossil fuel generated electricity.
Whatever the weather, the UK uses all its wind and sun power every day for existing demand. Add more with the mass adoption of battery cars and we will need energy generated by gas or coal power stations to make up the difference, whether domestic or imported from other countries that also need some fossil fuel power on their systems.
The minister was unable to tell me when we might have sufficient renewable energy to guarantee all renewable power. He accepted some part of the power to recharge would be fossil fuel dependent (missing the point that adding additional demand is likely to be entirely fossil fuel dependent). Extra marginal demand requires extra marginal supply, which by definition cannot be British renewable energy.
I also sought advice in the debate about how households will be able to take on electric cars and heat pumps this decade given the lack of the necessary energy capacity.
There is already rationing of access to additional electricity, with some being told they cannot connect new fast chargers to the system and businesses told there is not enough power for their growing needs when they wish to invest. If we are to make speedy progress with converting from fossil fuels to electric cars and heating, there needs to be a big step-up in grid capacity; any streets will need digging up to install larger cables to take the extra power, and that’s just the start.
There was general agreement, during the debate, that this is a problem, but no solutions were forthcoming. Planning and investing in an infrastructure to treble electricity transit is going to take a long time, a lot of money, and a vast amount of construction work; there is resistance to the march of more pylons across the landscape, and limited appetite for re-cabling the streets.
The heat pump poses the same problems as battery cars. Early adopters often report high electricity usage to get them to work. If many more people chose them, there would be yet more power supply issues.
Moreover, those pumps will also need fossil fuel electricity to work until renewable power catches up with total demand. How does it help to burn the fossil fuel in a power station instead of in a residential boiler? There are many more energy losses at the power station and in sending the power to your home.
Britain has reduced its carbon output in part by closing energy-intensive activities at home and importing the products instead. Global CO2 emissions usually increase as a result, due to the additional demands of transporting those products here.
This issue is the root of several difficult questions of modern industrial strategy. For example, the Government saw it as a big win when Tata Steel announced a major investment in electric arc furnaces for its South Wales plant – many jobs will be secured and the carbon dioxide output will plunge.
Critics saw it differently: not only will jobs be lost overall, but the closure of the blast furnaces means the plant will no longer be able to produce new steel, as the arc furnaces are designed to melt down metal scrap to reuse. This is a worthy task, but arguably a country needs independent capacity to make new steel as part of any national security and resilience policy.
The easy wins on reducing CO2 are behind us. It was always going to be easier to drive down emissions in the realms of the state and big business than in the consumer sphere, where shifts directly impact voters’ households budgets and lifestyles.
In order to be truly green, the so-called green revolution needs a huge increase in renewable energy generation, rather than merely replacing the direct consumption of gas and petrol with electric products powered by fossil fuels. That in turn requires solving the issue of how do you provide green power when the wind is not blowing and the sun is shining.
There are plenty of possible solutions, including green hydrogen and new battery technology. The advanced world that is doing most to decarbonise needs to see returns on the subsidised trials and developments in new fuels, electric technology, and new green products – and to hone said products so they meet consumer needs and expectations.
But most of them will also require an expanded grid and a huge amount of new cabling to get that energy to each home, factory and charging point.
(Most, but not all. The EU have accepted that hydrogen is part of the answer for heavier vehicles. They are keen on synthetic fuels, and on sustainable aviation fuel. This recognises that not all net zero policies hinge on more grid delivered electricity.)
The UK does not have the resource to solve all the technical and development issues itself, and will need to adopt and adapt the best on offer from overseas.
We must also find a way to onshore more of the green jobs this work will generate. China has built a formidable lead in making batteries, wind turbines and solar panels, and gained access to many of the metals and raw materials these products need. But becoming import-dependent on China for critical industrial and power infrastructure and technologies would be a steep price to pay, even for a cleaner world.