Last week’s establishment of the Department of Energy Security and Net Zero felt like the death knell for the policy that occupies the second half of its name. It seems a bit premature to announce that. Just eighteen months or so ago Boris Johnson was the host of the COP26 jamboree in Glasgow – his example of hospitality required a Sue Gray investigation.
But our editor has developed a recent habit of quoting Kipling to tell a former prime minister some hard truths, and I shamelessly offer to do so. In his poem ‘Recession’ for Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee, the poet suggested to those celebrating the high-point of royal glory that “all our pomp of yesterday” would soon be “one with Nineveh and Tyre”. The same sense of melancholy should apply to our net zero ambitions – and our ongoing energy supply problems.
Cards on the table: I think becoming ‘carbon neutral’ by 2050 has always been an unrealistic objective. Bowing to the Romulus Augustulus phase of Theresa May’s Prime Ministership without a vote of MPs, the huge cost of rapidly decarbonising our economy was never considered.
As our standard measure of emissions fails to include emissions elsewhere but is driven by UK consumption, our claims of success in reducing greenhouses often give an incomplete picture. Concerns about deindustrialisation have been brushed aside by promises of ‘green jobs’ – although research suggests decarbonisation will create more jobs, as seen with the hollowing out of our domestic steel industry due to high energy costs.
However, Johnson enthusiastically accepted the target at number 10. Despite previously being a fan of “scholarly astrophysicist Piers Corbyn” and sympathizing with the fact that our climate has “everything” to do with “the giant thermonuclear fireball around us”, according to Sam Hall of the Conservative Environment Network (CEN), he Has achieved more on climate change “than any Conservative prime minister in the last 10 or so years”.
Johnson often flip-flopped on the green. He spoke of his efforts to decarbonize London as mayor, voted against carbon capture technology as an MP, and then lobbied against President Trump’s Paris-scepticism as foreign secretary. One surmises that his enthusiasm arose partly from the heart, partly from scientific advice and partly because there was ample opportunity to make Britain the “Saudi Arabia of the Wind”. big project.
Whatever the reason, championing the necessity and benefits of net zero became a stock feature of Johnson’s recovery. Naturally, MPs in the coveted pole realized there was no harm in revealing their green credentials. MPs flock to CEN; We’ve got several articles on what Net Zero can do for different constituencies.
I need not tell my readers that the political situation has changed little since Johnson was in his pomp. Not only has Rishi Sunak made the long journey to his next door neighbor, but Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has plunged the West into its worst energy crisis since John Pertwee. who is the doctor. These two developments make the Net Zero agenda sit as nicely as Madonna’s latest rear-guard action against aging.
Undoubtedly, many Tory MPs’ enthusiasm for Net Zero is entirely sincere. But the outbreak of net zero-skepticism during last year’s summer leadership election gave my ambition theory some credence. Team members did not share Johnson’s enthusiasm. Protesting against its leading champion, upwardly-mobile MPs voted out their apostasy.
Suella Braverman was first out of the trap, calling on the UK to “suspend its totalitarian ambition to achieve net zero by 2050”. Kemi Badenoch called a goal “wrong”, and Sunak and Liz made headlines for Truss’ past lack of enthusiasm for the agenda. Avoiding the energy issue, however, is something no candidate has been able to do, as prices soar and commentators warn darkly of (ahem) nightmare scenarios.
Energy was central to Truss’ agenda when he entered office. Unfortunately for net zero, if we think of the energy ‘trilemma’ as the difficult task of balancing balance, security of supply and reducing emissions, the first two took priority. This was clearly signaled by his choice of Jacob Rees-Mogg as Business Secretary – never a keen supporter of the green agenda. His focus is first on capping energy bills, and then on pushing for more fracking to increase domestic supply.
Chris Skidmore was bought by reporting on what Net Zero is an agenda that has largely been side-lined. While Truss’ efforts to boost supply may have failed to get off the launch pad, Sunak, launching the Department of Energy Security promised during his leadership campaign, is attacking the same issue from a different angle. This is not good news for decarbonisation fans.
Why? Whether or not you choose to include those that are produced by consumption, it still remains that successive governments have been much better at reducing emissions than at securing our energy supply. As Carl Williams highlights, opposition to new nuclear power, pressure from the North Sea oil and gas industry, and an anti-fracking lobby that prevents us from emulating America’s shale gas revolution make us particularly vulnerable.
Fixing this would be expensive and time consuming. Instead of balancing the prongs of the power trilemma against each other, we’ve got the worst of all worlds. The fastest way to increase supply is by reopening coal and gas-fired stations that were intended for mothballing—hardly good for our greenhouse gas emissions. Truss wins his fracking vote – but an anti-fracking candidate’s victory in West Lancashire shows voters’ lack of enthusiasm for overturning the ban.
North Sea exploration is being encouraged again – but new windfall taxes compound years of underinvestment. Johnson promised that 25 percent of our energy would soon come from nuclear — mirroring the empty promises of successive administrations that have failed to deliver new reactors.
In the face of backbench rebellion (and the odd unhelpful editorial), Sunak ended the moratorium on new offshore wind projects, yet wind power remains problematic. We have nominally enough wind (and solar) plants for our average consumption.
Unfortunately, they neither live up to their imagined potential, nor deliver when the wind doesn’t blow and the sun doesn’t shine. Storing energy in lithium batteries is six times more expensive than generating it in the first place. Lithium will be essential for 21St Oil was 20 as a centurym – But the Chinese got the drop on us long ago.
All this leaves us rather stuck. Short-term demands to increase supply will see us move away from our net zero commitment in the pursuit of oil and gas. Our long-term goal of increasing supply is blunted by the same NIMBYism and navel-gazing that got us into this mess in the first place.
Sunak’s decision to go “and net zero” in his new category shows a disappointing way forward. A little cruel greenwashing is much easier than solving our depressing energy dilemma. Without more domestic supply, we will be dependent on fossil fuels for the foreseeable future – and there are more votes in trying to keep the lights on than in going after greenhouse gases.
Perhaps Net Zero was a handy tagline for those willing to publicize their green credentials without acknowledging the trade-off decarbonization involved. Our energy crisis has brought home just how deep they are – and Johnson’s defection has shown how lightly commitments to policy are worn by his party. Far-fetched, net zero melts down — and lest we forget how costly this flirtation was.