‘Net Zero’ groupthink got us into this mess energy mess – ‘Green virtue-signalling has wreaked havoc’
Iain Martin: ‘Net Zero’ groupthink got us into this mess
The Times, 18 August 2022
Britain’s main parties, all of them, and every arm of the state designed and cheered on the race to net zero. With voters angry as the bills land, no one wants to admit their culpability.
Get ready to be bribed with your own money. The political parties are competing to show who can offer the biggest bailout to get through this winter’s energy shock. But do not be deceived about who really pays for the failure of Britain’s energy policy. We all do.
The old observation by Margaret Thatcher that the government does not have any money of its own to dispense is as true now as it was then. It only has what it collects from us in taxes and borrows on our behalf. Higher borrowing generally means higher taxes later.
I make this point not to suggest energy bailouts shouldn’t happen. They must. Without tens of billions in immediate assistance, many citizens will face distress and penury this winter. The winner of the Tory leadership race has no option other than to spend more on this to avoid social unrest.
But amid the clamour there is a game of distraction and blame-dodging going on. The main parties, all of them, and every arm of the state have a shared interest in avoiding a proper accounting for what went wrong. They all designed and cheered on Britain’s too aggressive race to net zero. With voters angry as the bills land, no one wants to admit their culpability.
Since the 2008 Climate Change Act, successive governments, urged on by the opposition — and the SNP and the Lib Dems — bet the house on getting to net zero quicker than anyone else. They gambled on Britain becoming a global leader in killing off carbon use and howled down anyone expressing concerns. And look where it has landed us.
This is not an argument about whether or not climate change is happening. Even if you think, as I do, the emphasis should be on reducing pollution while adapting calmly, the climate is changing. There is a huge shift to renewable energy under way.
As Professor Helen Thompson makes clear in her latest book Disorder: Hard Times in the 21st Century, if the 1800s were the century of coal, and the 1900s the century of oil and gas, the rest of this century will be defined by the push for clean energy.
But as Thompson says, we need to be realistic and not believe the trade-offs are easy. This is going to be an extremely difficult transition lasting decades. There are the seeds of potential future wars in the battle for copper and hard-to-extract rare earths and minerals that are needed for wind farms, solar, batteries and new technology.
In the interim, we are going to need gas, and a lot of it, for many years. Last year it contributed 39.8 per cent of the electricity generated in Britain, according to the government’s report on energy use published last month. Oil and other fuels contributed 3.5 per cent. For gas, that’s a rise year on year. Total renewables were down a little, at 39.6 per cent.
This was not the impression given during Cop26 in Glasgow last November where the evangelism was childlike, as though wind power is endless and solar is free because it comes from the sun. Nicola Sturgeon grinned for selfies. Boris Johnson whirred away generating hot air.
Celebrating the launch of the government’s net-zero strategy last October, Johnson said Britain was leading the charge: “The UK’s path to ending our contribution to climate change will be paved with well-paid jobs, billions in investment and thriving green industries.” Well, up to a point. In time, perhaps it will be. First, there is a war on and not enough energy to go round.
What should always have been kept in mind by politicians and their climate tsars is that economies and energy production are highly complex systems, vulnerable to global disruptions, pandemics and war.
Instead, there was simplistic green groupthink. Labour complains now, but it can’t do so credibly when it is the co-architect of the nation’s policy. Ed Miliband, the former Labour leader, was highly influential. His price cap idea, adopted by the Conservatives under Theresa May, has proved to be worse than useless, providing consumers with false reassurance. Now, some in Labour call for nationalisation, although no one can say of what or at what price.
Miliband, like many climate activists, complains the government didn’t do net zero properly and spent too little on insulation. In the context of this emergency, the scale of dependence on gas and the difficulty of making quicker progress on renewables, that is trifling. What was needed was an urgent national effort to build more gas storage, to source more of every scrap of energy, and to tell us, the public, all year to get used to conserving energy to keep bills, and the expensive bailout, down. That would have involved levelling with people and admitting the too-fast race to net zero was a mistake. Neither the government nor the opposition were prepared to do so.
They were warned. Last October American and British intelligence said a Russian invasion of Ukraine was coming. The prime minister failed to make the connection clearly enough between war and energy.
More than six months after the invasion, only very recently has the regulator authorised more gas storage. The zombie government is in talks with Centrica about who might bear the risks and rewards.
Liz Truss sat in cabinet throughout this saga. Even so, her skill as a shapeshifter may help her now if she opts for honesty. Moving to clean energy is going to take a long time and right now we’re in a national emergency that may last years. Britain will have to secure and store more energy, and use less.
With everything else having been tried by Britain’s political parties, Truss might as well try the truth.
Spiked, 16 August 2022
Complacency and green virtue-signalling have wreaked havoc with our energy supplies.
Energy bills are soaring to dangerous heights in Britain. By April 2023, the energy price cap could even rise to over £5,000 for the average household. More alarming still, politicians have little to say on how energy costs can be brought down.
In the contest between Conservative prime-ministerial hopefuls Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak, most of the debate has fixated on the relative merits of using tax cuts vs state benefits to ease the cost-of-living pressures. The outgoing Boris Johnson government has threatened to extend its windfall tax on energy companies. Meanwhile, Labour leader Keir Starmer has proposed freezing the price cap at its current level of £1,971, which would be paid for by an expanded windfall tax and scrapping the current government support on offer to households.
Whatever each proposal’s merits in easing the pain to consumers, none of them actually reckons with the actual problems driving sky-high energy prices. No one anywhere near power in Britain seems especially interested in doing what is necessary to guarantee an affordable, reliable and secure supply of energy.
Any policy aimed at lowering energy prices must start with the question of energy supply. Most critical to this is the supply of gas, which heats our homes, powers our industries and fuels nearly 40 per cent of UK electricity generation.
Action is needed right now. We need to start drilling for more North Sea gas and start fracking for shale gas across the UK. And we need to start building new nuclear power stations – including small modular reactors. None of these options will come online fast enough to make a difference this winter – but we should be doing everything we can to avoid prolonging this crisis.
Besides, whenever politicians do touch on the issue of supply, they tend to put going green above questions of speed and reliability. Building more wind turbines would take far longer than extracting gas we can then use in existing power plants and boilers. Besides, the energy wind turbines provide can only ever be intermittent, which means we will still need more gas at our disposal to use as a back-up source of power. Renewable energy cannot solve this crisis.
Meanwhile, proposals to reduce our use of gas and electricity, via home insulation and swapping boilers with heat pumps, will take even more time and expense. An estimated 19million homes are said to have inadequate insulation, and fixing this will not be easy or cheap. Meanwhile, only a tiny number of households are interested in installing heat pumps – even government grants worth up to £6,000 have been largely shunned by the public.
What matters most is increasing our supply of gas, especially in the event that Russia cuts off its gas supplies to Europe. Though Britain imports far less Russian gas than most countries on the continent, the shock this would cause to the global market will affect us, too.
But instead of putting all our energies into securing more supply, the UK authorities would prefer us to start rationing our gas and electricity use. Officials are already drawing up plans for so-called load shedding – that is, organised blackouts for prolonged time periods, as is already happening in South Africa. Such rationing cannot just be excused as a short-term response to an acute crisis. Over the longer run, the UK government has presided over the managed decline of our energy supplies.
As well as failing to produce enough home-grown gas, successive governments have made it harder to buy and store gas from abroad. In the UK, we store just one per cent of our annual demand for gas, while Germany, Italy and France store a quarter to a third of theirs.
It has been, until recently, a deliberate UK policy to shut down gas-storage facilities, and to instead rely on up-to-the moment supplies from the global market. There is now discussion in government about reviving the Rough storage facility in east Yorkshire, closed down back in 2017. We need to not only revive facilities like this, but also to build more like it, so that we can store enough gas away to fuel power stations and avoid blackouts, even in the event of supply shocks.
It will cost a lot to import gas, and to have the facilities in place to support this, but this will at least buy us time to move towards extracting more indigenous gas and building more nuclear-power stations.
Just as urgent as extracting more gas and finding ways to store it is fixing how we transport gas to where it is needed. Britain’s gas network is far from robust. Last October in Ayrshire, Scotland, four homes were destroyed by a corroded gas pipe. And only last week, an explosion tore through a house in Thornton Heath, London, killing a four-year-old girl, sending three people to hospital and forcing 100 people to be evacuated from their homes.
Given the general state of Britain’s fast-decaying infrastructure, we have every reason to believe the networks that move gas around the country are creaking. Worse still, some of the players involved suggest we can’t expect major improvements anytime soon. In March, the National Grid agreed to sell a 60 per cent equity interest in National Grid Gas, its UK gas transmission and metering business, for a ‘consideration’ of £2.2 billion in cash. One of the main buyers was Macquarie, the Australian bank that owns a lot of Britain’s water industry – a sector beset by infrastructural failings and underinvestment. If our water woes are anything to go by, then the safe, reliable gas grid we need is a long way away.
Little is likely to change until we start making a robust defence not only of gas but also of energy use more broadly. We should not have to tolerate high energy and heating bills. Nor should we be nudged into turning down the heating, putting on a jumper or turning off the lights to reduce our use of energy this winter. Nor in hot summers should we be frowned on for buying fans and air conditioners.
Fixing our energy supply – ensuring it is cheap, secure and reliable – must be the priority. Learning to live with blackouts is not an option.
James Woudhuysen is visiting professor of forecasting and innovation at London South Bank University.