The Tories’ Energy Strategy Is Running on Empty

This week's energy strategy was an opportunity for urgent action to tackle the climate and cost of living crises – the government failed on both fronts.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson visits Hinkley Point C on 7 April 2022 in Bridgwater, England, to mark the UK government's new energy strategy. (Finnbarr Webster / Getty Images)

Earlier this week, the new report from the UN’s Independent Panel on Climate Change offered the latest in a long line of apocalyptic ‘now or never’ pronouncements outlining how limiting warming to around 1.5°C requires emissions to peak by 2025 and be halved by 2030. Three days later, the British government announced its ‘British Energy Security Strategy’, a hodge-podge intended to grapple with the interconnected issues of climate change, dependence on Russian oil and gas in light of the invasion of Ukraine, and British households’ skyrocketing energy bills—which fails on all three fronts.

The government has offered us a suite of half-baked ideas that fall predictably short of the problems facing the country. We have reams of new targets for offshore wind, hydrogen, solar, and nuclear energy, but the Tories have coughed up only a meaningful amount of funding for the latter, promising eight new nuclear reactors. There’s provision for a £30 million Heat Pump Investment Accelerator ‘competition’, but what form this will take—raffle or pub quiz—isn’t clear. And while targets like 95 percent low-carbon electricity by 2030, 50GW for offshore wind by 2030, and a five-fold increase in solar capacity by 2035 are welcome, they don’t speak to the the urgency at which we need to decarbonise, or offer any respite for people struggling to pay their soaring energy bills.

The strategy also follows the announcement last week that more licences are to be granted to explore new oil and gas fields, with an increase in production from existing North Sea sites. Hot on the heels of the recent appointment of Head of BP UK, Peter Mather, the energy plan also heralded the creation of yet another taskforce to provide ad hoc support for subsequent oil and gas developments. What is missing from the plan is any sense of timescale: energy security is presented as an immediate crisis, tied inextricably to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, but urgency exists in rhetoric alone, as it’s clear these developments will take years to make a substantial difference to our current energy mix. In tandem, the government has refused to increase support for onshore wind, the cheapest and easiest source of renewable energy, and one backed by over seventy percent of the public.

Even under the slightest scrutiny, any green credentials the Tories might have hoped to shore up with this strategy crumble. The goal of ending dependence on Russian fossil fuels is also thrown into question given the government had already announced plans to phase out the eight percent of our oil and four percent of our gas that we import from Russia. In terms of bringing down our bills in the here and now, the government has chosen to take a myopic focus on energy supply which lionises nuclear and hydrogen sources that will take years to deliver. Kwasi Kwarteng, the Business Secretary himself, appeared on the back foot when asked about the plan, saying the strategy is actually ‘more of a medium-term three, four, five-year answer.’ This is a tacit admission that the Tories have no real intention to address the situation in which millions of people currently find themselves, facing a desperate choice between heat and food.

This is perhaps best evidenced by the fact that there were no provisions on Thursday to invest in public transport or adapt our housing stock—currently one of Britain’s largest sources of carbon emissions—to make it energy efficient through insulation and retrofitting. After the catastrophic failure of the Green Homes Grant scheme, which was scrapped in March 2021 after just six months and with less than 50,000 homes benefitting, this strategy was a golden opportunity to relaunch a better version. Much like their scattershot approach to electric vehicles, when it comes to housing and carbon emissions, the Tories simply don’t understand the need for energy demand reduction. As long as that remains our approach, we’ll be constantly playing catch-up.

Real energy security requires phasing out all oil and gas imports as part of a renewable transition. A just transition also has scope to create hundreds of thousands of good, green, public-sector jobs, reversing the 28,000-job decline we’ve seen since in the zero-carbon energy sector since 2014. The creation of a publicly-owned energy company to manage such a transition, eliminating the profit motive that syphons off billions to private companies and their shareholders, is a practical necessity.

And the government knows that—because buried underneath the hyperbole and bluster, they also announced earlier this week that they would be partially taking the National Grid into public ownership. This new public ‘arms-length’ body, dubbed the Future System Operator, will have responsibility for planning and managing energy distribution, with a focus on the challenges posed by decarbonisation. It is unlikely, though, that they will deliver further urgently-needed nationalisations in the energy sector; this is where Labour should be making its case instead.

The Labour Party should be actively calling for public ownership of energy as a necessary precondition for any kind of transformation. It is now the ludicrous case that Labour members, trade unions, the general public, and even the Tory Party have advanced the case for public ownership of energy further than the current Labour leadership is willing to.

While the government flails around looking for a silver bullet to quieten both their restive supporter base and an increasingly vocal climate denialist faction within their own party, socialists looking to build a movement genuinely capable of meeting the future must continue to champion a Green New Deal with public ownership of energy at its heart. Taking the warnings of the IPCC seriously means recognising that anything less is a catastrophe.