As the Conservative leadership contest starts to heat up, many are watching with concern about what it may mean for energy and the environment. It’s not hard to see why. Some candidates are openly hostile towards the UK’s net zero target, pledging to abandon it less that a year after the UK hosted COP26.
It is a strange and worrying move. Households are struggling to pay their bills. Yet new wind farms supply electricity for a quarter of the current wholesale price. Electric cars are cheaper to drive and well insulated homes are cheaper to heat. Net zero is a way out of this. A route to security, affordability and yes, also a habitable climate. Net zero is global and it is inevitable, and putting our commitment to it in doubt will only delay the benefits and increase the costs.
Should environmentalists rue Johnson’s demise?
Johnson placed significant personal stock in net zero, and while some on the Tory right have been questioning the wisdom of the goal for a while, it has enjoyed a relative political consensus under his premiership. Some may have justifiably worried that the net zero legislation, delivered in the dying days of Theresa May’s government, could have been under threat from the start. It wasn’t: Johnson’s manifesto put it on page one.
The Glasgow summit, a critical step in the long chain towards global co-ordination, was widely regarded a success. And in preparation for it, Johnson placed real emphasis on the importance of UK action setting the tone and leading the way through upbeat rhetoric and ambitious targets.
Undoubtedly, his administration’s record was flattered by the actions of others. It was previous administrations who set the renewables industry on its winning trajectory of plummeting costs and rocketing growth. It was Tesla’s relentless innovation and consumer appeal that broke the total dominance of fossil fuel cars and opened the door to a rapid expansion of electric vehicles on UK roads.
But Johnson’s brand of optimistic leadership helped change the tone for markets to follow. A Net Zero Strategy, a 2030 target for 100% clean electricity, phase out dates for petrol cars and gas boilers – they all mattered. These targets have the potential to galvanise the innovation and investment our economy desperately needs and that markets deliver best.
But targets require serious policy to make them real. Action on the ground requires planning, policy, market making and in some cases spending too. And in recent years, these crucial elements simply haven’t kept pace. Progress on energy efficiency has been stalled for a decade. Plans to reorientate farming subsidies as “public money for public good” have been watered down to the point that they appear homeopathic. And precious little progress has been made on critical new infrastructure – new nuclear, carbon capture, smart meters and charging points all continue to falter.
Of course, Johnson wasn’t helped by the distractions of a pandemic and a global energy crisis. But his government often lacked the imagination or determination to seize the opportunities net zero offers in responding to these crises. Build Back Better was quickly forgotten after the debacle of a Green Homes Grant scheme sabotaged by Treasury short-sightedness. The Energy Security Strategy responded to an immediate crisis with wild promises of new nuclear power a decade from now. In the end, Johnson had neither ideas nor the power to make his green vision a reality.
Is net zero really in danger?
It will worry some then that the current front-runner is Rishi Sunak, who as chancellor often seemed unwilling to help. And yet, many of his rivals, notably Suella Braverman and Kemi Badenoch, are taking an even harder line, promising to ditch net zero altogether.
They should be careful what they promise. The reality is that on day one, the new PM, regardless of what “red meat” they have thrown to party members, will be briefed on the energy crisis. They will be told that the UK is intolerably exposed to international energy price volatility, and that the only credible options to address it are a combination of rapid expansion of clean domestic power and demand reduction.
They will be told that the green levies they’ve lambasted and promised to remove will account for less than 5% of bills this winter and are actually a mix of social policies that support the poorest households stay warm and contractual obligations.
They will be told that abandoning net zero will undermine their ability to make trade agreements, repair relations with Europe, or wield diplomatic influence. That abandoning net zero requires changing the law, and that they may find they are unable to get Parliament to vote for that, or the public to stand for it.
Ultimately, all making energy and climate a political football will do is to slow the inevitable direction of travel, increase the costs and elongate the crisis we are in.
Yet there is space for conservative answers. It is entirely possible to commit to energy market reforms that will bring down prices and increase security whilst going green. It is entirely possible to prioritise food production while simultaneously helping restore nature. And it is certainly possible to encourage electric cars and greener homes as ways of permanently reducing bills.
A pragmatic but serious pro-growth, pro-markets, pro-trade green agenda might be the winning ticket. Johnson talked up such an approach but was unable to deliver it. The current leadership contest seems to be lurching away from it. But the reality is that whoever comes next will need to take up the net zero mantle, or risk pouring fuel on the flames of a crisis.