In​ June 2019, legislation committing the UK to net zero carbon emissions by 2050 was added to the Climate Change Act. This move, made by Theresa May shortly before she resigned as prime minister, was strongly supported by the Conservative Environment Network, whose members now include half the MPs on the Tory back benches. But since COP26, loud complaints have been coming from a small group of Tory MPs calling themselves the Net Zero Scrutiny Group. Steve Baker, the former Brexit minister and one of nineteen confirmed members of the group, claimed that sticking to the net zero target will mean that people are ‘going to be poorer, they’re going to be colder … and they may be eating insects for protein’. Insects aside, the very real threat of fuel poverty is a gift for those Tory MPs who used to think they had to accept green policies. Sensing this shift, the right-wing press has gone full throttle. In January, the Mail on Sunday led with an interview with the former chief Brexit negotiator David Frost: ‘I think people have been sold a kind of view that the net zero transition can happen without much increase in costs or problems. That’s obviously not the case and people are now seeing that.’ The Daily Mail quoted Julian Knight, chair of the Commons culture committee and a member of the NZSG: ‘In the short term, [Johnson] needs to abolish the VAT on energy bills and get rid of the green taxes.’ In March, Nigel Farage wrote in the Mail on Sunday that ‘net zero is net stupid’ and was taking Britain down ‘a ruinous path’. A comment piece in the Telegraph said net zero was ‘very likely an impossible target to achieve without hollowing out our industry and impoverishing the country’.

Railing against wind farms, electric cars and heat pumps won’t stop the global move to decarbonisation. More than 140 countries, accounting for 90 per cent of global emissions, have committed to net zero, the majority of them by 2060 or sooner. These pledges, even if all of them are met, have only a 6-10 per cent chance of keeping warming to 1.5°C, the threshold below which, experts believe, we can avert the worst effects of climate change. But net zero by 2060 gives us a much better chance of keeping warming to 2°C, the original aim of the Paris Agreement, which will at least help us avoid catastrophe. Governments and corporate funds are pouring billions of dollars into green technologies. Farage’s argument that there’s no point in the UK reducing its emissions while China (net zero by 2060), India (2070) and Russia (2060) do nothing is both stupid and wrong. You can argue with the pace of travel, but not the direction.

Climate politics is a new front for Brexiters. Richard Tice, leader of the Reform (previously Brexit) Party, of which Farage is president, has repeatedly claimed that net zero is as divisive as EU membership. The party, which is running 120 candidates in the local elections, believes that the public mood is shifting against net zero. There’s no evidence they’re right. The recent Energy Security Strategy, drafted in response to the war in Ukraine, proposed increasing solar, nuclear and offshore wind power. A majority of MPs agree that investing in renewables is the best route to British energy independence, and so far the Tory front bench has ignored calls to drop the 8 per cent of the cost of bills comprising environmental and social levies.

That may change. The long expected move to make it easier to build onshore wind turbines was removed from the review at the last minute. Since 2013, when David Cameron, under pressure from rural MPs, promised to ‘cut the green crap’ from government policy, planning rules have prevented any systematic large-scale construction of wind turbines in England. The argument is always the same: people aren’t against renewables, just not that kind or in this area. (Curiously, some of the MPs who have spoken out against solar and onshore wind support fracking for shale gas.) There has been one important change to Cameron’s policy, however. In 2020 wind turbines were admitted to the renewables subsidy scheme. Since then, planning has boomed: if all the schemes reach fruition there would be a near doubling of current capacity by 2030. Almost all the new sites will be in Scotland, where the law gives less weight to local feeling.

The government knows that ‘Drop Net Zero!’ is a call that ignores environmental, economic and geopolitical realities. But it’s not keen to admit what facing these realities might look like. There’s a perfectly good argument for developing domestic sources of gas. Every realistic scenario for getting to net zero assumes we will still need some gas in 2050, but imports have a bigger carbon footprint and the North Sea is a declining reserve, which shouldn’t be exploited. Fracking was halted in Britain in 2019 following a small seismic event at a site near Blackpool run by the firm Cuadrilla. Earthquakes are an inevitable consequence of fracking, as is some environmental destruction, but in Britain they’re unlikely to cause major damage. The industry argued (correctly) that it was being held to stricter limits than coal mining, major construction projects and the exploration of new geothermal energy sources, but the government didn’t want to spend political capital defending a policy that people instinctively dislike.

The recent announcement of a ‘scientific review’ into shale gas has been seen as reopening the fracking debate. But people are never going to want fracking near their homes, and if the government won’t ease the rules for onshore wind, it isn’t going to loosen them for fracking. Exploiting shale gas in Britain would probably mean hundreds, if not thousands, of wells across the country, multiplying the political cost in order to extract an unknown quantity of gas to sell to a diminishing European market. Neither North Sea gas or shale gas could be produced in sufficient quantities to lower household bills significantly. The calls to drop the green levies don’t stand up to scrutiny either. Almost half of the levies are tied to old renewables contracts, and most of the remainder provide heating benefits for fuel-poor homes and funding to insulate social housing.

So the government hasn’t abandoned net zero. But it still can’t bring itself to commit. Plans for 24 gigawatts of nuclear power (the favoured technology of renewable-sceptic Tories) by 2050 are ambitious to the point of implausibility. Meanwhile, the immediate gains to be had from improving energy efficiency in homes barely get a mention in the review. Ministers see state-led energy efficiency projects as boring, expensive, and risky when they go wrong – which they often do. In November, Johnson set a target of 600,000 new heat pumps to be installed every year from 2028 (about twenty times the current figure). But you won’t hear a cabinet minister saying anything in support of that technology. You might hear the boosterish line that hydrogen will swoop in and replace natural gas over the next decade; it won’t happen, but by that point there will be a different government, so who cares? Labour’s plans are much more ambitious, including a £60 billion ten-year effort to insulate homes. But Labour too has been swept up by the hydrogen lobby – which is to say the gas industry – and is pinning its hopes on hydrogen as a means to sidestep the political difficulties posed by heat pumps.

The government might have had a better chance of winning public support if it had come up with a long-term strategy for the trickiest parts of the transition. Instead, the recent energy crisis has exposed Johnson’s short-termist focus on PR gains. The cost of gas will only increase as the rest of the world decarbonises; one of the pressures on energy prices at the moment is the greater demand for liquefied natural gas as China and others move away from coal. This has been on the cards for some time, but in 2017 the government allowed Centrica to close Britain’s biggest gas storage facility rather than subsidise repairs. There is now talk of converting the site to hydrogen storage, subject – according to Centrica’s CEO – to government backing.

The green industrial revolution poses a fundamental challenge to Tory thinking. It may seem to have some connection to traditional conservative notions about land stewardship and to modern slogans about entrepreneurship and innovation. It may also be a means of creating jobs in some of the former Labour heartlands the party won in 2019. But it can’t be achieved without substantial government intervention of a sort it is not at all willing to make. The German government is investing €8 billion in hydrogen technology to decarbonise heavy industry, displace fertiliser emissions and store energy when the wind doesn’t blow. The Tories have pledged £900 million. Italy is offering to pay 110 per cent of the costs of installing a heat pump, solar panel or insulation in homes as part of a scheme that has already cost £17.5 billion. We have seen only one attempt at a national insulation project in recent years, the Green Homes Grant, a ‘slam dunk fail’ according to the parliamentary Public Accounts Committee. The scheme, which had been contracted out to a company in Virginia, was cancelled after six months in March 2021 after a number of failings, including an IT meltdown that left workers in the US processing claims by hand.

Cabinet ministers know you can save money by insulating your home and turning down your thermostat. They know we need to replace our gas boilers and eat less meat. But they won’t say it. They’ll go out of their way to avoid any suggestion that life might have to change, or that the price of inaction might be infinitely greater than anything we are asked to pay now. But not being upfront about the transition won’t ultimately do the Tories any favours. Among European countries, we are second only to the Netherlands in our reliance on gas central heating, and our homes are among the leakiest. After the 1973 oil crisis many countries began ramping up energy efficiency. We didn’t. We need to do better.

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Vol. 44 No. 10 · 26 May 2022

Maya James overlooks the international realities of the UK’s energy problems (LRB, 12 May). For at least the next ten years the UK’s energy system remains locked into global oil and gas markets, with all their dangers and volatilities. Neither domestic fracking nor more North Sea investment will make anything but the most marginal difference, since their outputs will also be governed by world market prices. Indeed, all investment in the North Sea takes place on the condition that it is an international province.

Eventually we hope to be largely free of gas and oil imports, but the idea that this will then give us energy independence is nonsense. Wind pylons require imported components and materials, nuclear power plants (even smaller reactors) use imported fuel and are sensitive to system breakdown. Electric vehicle batteries require rare earths and metals mostly only available from dodgy supplier countries. Interconnectors, the high-voltage cables that connect the electricity systems of neighbouring countries, can break down or be shut off. The whole grid system depends on imported microcircuits, as do all back-up and storage technologies.

Finally, this promised future national energy security won’t make an atom of difference to the present impossibly high fuel prices. Home insulation will help a little, but the only certain short-term relief is for the big oil and gas producers (our supposed friends in the Middle East) to use their large spare capacity to pump more oil and gas to replace Russian exports and bring global prices sharply down. Overcoming their refusal to do so requires political and diplomatic skills which seem to be beyond us. We also need climate campaigners to grasp that emergency measures of this sort don’t conflict with the longer-term goal of decarbonisation.

David Howell
London SW7

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