'The government has produced an energy strategy which has ignored the overwhelming evidence detailing the harm caused by extractive industries'.
Tom Perrett is a freelance journalist and researcher who mainly covers climate change and energy policy. His work has appeared in Byline Times, Current Affairs, The Ecologist and DeSmog
The government’s energy security strategy, intended to deliver domestic energy independence, has been heavily criticised by key figures within the UK’s green economy who argue that it is insufficient in addressing climate change and the cost of living crisis.
Barnaby Wharton, Director of Future Electricity Systems at the trade association RenewableUK, told Channel 4 News that the government’s energy strategy was a “mixed bag,” arguing that “we’ve seen a rather disappointing failure to commit to larger targets for onshore wind”. “The failure to commit to that means that we’re not going to see a decrease in bills and reliance on gas that we otherwise would have done,” he added.
Rebellious backbenchers thwart onshore wind plans
Due to backbench pressure, including comments from Transport Secretary Grant Shapps, who has branded onshore wind farms an ‘eyesore’, the government has watered down commitments to expand onshore wind power. Despite the initial draft of the energy security strategy, leaked to The I, having contained proposals to deliver 45 GW of energy from onshore wind by 2035, the final document merely promised to ‘consult on developing partnerships with a limited number of supportive communities’.
The expansion of both onshore and offshore wind power has split the Conservative Party; a Whatsapp group, reportedly comprising 140 Tory MPs opposed to offshore wind power, has emerged to thwart the government’s renewable energy plans. Sustained backbench opposition to wind power has prompted shadow energy secretary Ed Miliband to claim that the Prime Minister has been ‘held to ransom’ by members of his own party.
The energy security strategy, in lieu of providing a reliable, domestic energy supply based on renewables, has included proposals to expand fossil fuel energy sources. In an attempt to phase out Russian natural gas imports, the strategy pledges new licences for North Sea oil and gas exploration, stating that domestic gas production will remain a ‘core part of UK energy security strategy,’ by 2030.
Downplaying the urgency of reaching net zero emissions by 2050, which he said was ‘a long way off’, Brexit opportunities minister Jacob Rees-Mogg recently told LBC that “we need to be thinking about extracting every last cubic inch of gas from the North Sea”. Green Party leader Caroline Lucas criticised Rees-Mogg’s comments, telling The Independent that “when this government seeks to extract every last drop of oil, and every last cubic metre of gas, it risks destroying every last glimmer of hope we have of avoiding the devastating future we’re hurtling towards.”
Failing to address the cost of living crisis
Despite government claims that the expansion of domestic oil and gas will reduce the country’s ‘exposure to volatile international prices’, enabling Britain to ‘increase self-reliance’ following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, environmental advocacy groups argue that it will fail to establish domestic energy security. Speaking to The Independent, Ed Matthew from green think tank E3G described the plan as a ‘national security threat’, contending that: “The person who will be happiest with it is Vladimir Putin”.
Indeed, amid the cost of living crisis, which has seen the energy price cap increase by 54% and inflation rise to its highest level in four decades, many climate campaigners have called on the government to provide low carbon insulation for homes, which would enable households on lower incomes to reduce their dependence on gas.
Yet Chancellor Rishi Sunak, whose Spring Statement was widely criticised for its failure to adequately mitigate the soaring cost of living, has recently reneged on the proposed Energy Company Obligation (ECO) scheme, intended to pay for improved energy efficiency in the poorest homes using approximately £200 million per year, raised from a levy on energy bills. This follows sustained cuts to home insulation; since 2013, the Conservatives have reduced the number of installations by 90%, according to independent advisory body the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit.
Rebecca Newsom, head of Politics at Greenpeace UK, condemned the energy security strategy’s failure to provide pragmatic solutions to the cost of living crisis, telling Politics.co.uk that it “comprehensively fails to stand up to Putin’s violence, to take the sting out of soaring energy bills, or take control of the spiralling climate crisis”.
According to Newsom, the government has “prioritised slow solutions, dishing out rewards to vested interests in the nuclear and the oil and gas industries, which won’t tackle the cost of living crisis or reduce our dependence on gas”.
Contravening climate obligations
Moreover, the strategy’s reliance on the continued expansion of oil and gas extraction licences, which according to official data take an average of 28 years to commence production, risks locking the country into long term fossil fuel usage. This proposal contravenes the terms set out by a recent IPCC report, published days before the energy security strategy, which found that “estimates of future CO2 emissions from existing fossil fuel infrastructures already exceed remaining cumulative net CO2 emissions in pathways limiting warming to 1.5°C”.
The report, which argued that “warming cannot be limited to 2C or 1.5C without rapid and deep reductions in energy system CO2 and GHG emissions,” found that “decommissioning and reduced utilisation of existing fossil fuel installations in the power sector as well as cancellation of new installations are required to align future CO2 emissions from the power sector with projections in these pathways”.
It is not only the IPCC that has highlighted the dangers of increased fossil fuel extraction; reputable climate watchdog the International Energy Agency argued in a groundbreaking May 2019 report that “the path to net-zero emissions is narrow: staying on it requires immediate and massive deployment of all available clean and efficient energy technologies”.
The report, which outlined optimal scenarios for reaching net zero emissions, found that “there are no new oil and gas fields approved for development in our pathway, and no new coal mines or mine extensions are required”. Advocating for a “sharp decline” in fossil fuel demand, the report stated that “the focus for oil and gas producers switches entirely to output – and emissions reductions – from the operation of existing assets”.
It is striking that months after the COP26 conference, at which the Prime Minister acknowledged that as a result of failure to act on climate change, future generations would “judge us with bitterness and with a resentment that eclipses any of the climate activists of today,” the government has produced an energy strategy which has ignored the overwhelming evidence detailing the harm caused by extractive industries.
The strategy, widely criticised by environmental groups and opposition politicians, represents a missed opportunity for the government to address both the cost of living crisis and the climate emergency.