Wednesday, November 30

The Tories railed against ‘green crap’. Why trust them to solve the energy crisis now? | Polly Toynbee

In the grip of the energy crisis, gas prices are already due to increase by 50% in April, and will spike higher later in the year, while the chancellor’s modest mitigations do little for unaffordable bills. Boris Johnson is about to produce an energy strategy to cut reliance on Russian imports and speed UK generation. I have wobbled on fracking.

But before he boasts some “world-beating” plan, hold on to this salient fact. If the Tories had not blocked progress on renewables and insulation over the last decade, Britain would already be generating more clean energy than the amount provided by the fuels imported from Russia.

Tories may recall those sunlit days leading up to the 2010 election when David Cameron, as the green man of folklore, posed in the Arctic cheerily driving a husky team, as he rebranded his party with an oak tree and a Vote Blue, Go Green slogan . His greenery from him was environmental gauze to signify an end to the nasty party: he did the job pretty well.

He did preserve Labour’s green policies initially, but in 2013 Cameron panicked when Labour’s Ed Miliband pledged a price freeze, after energy prices had risen by 37% in three years. Cut the “green crap” Cameron ordered, which was duly splashed across the Sun’s front page. The consequences were far reaching. Stripping out green subsidies caused the number of homes getting loft or cavity wall insulation to plummet immediately by 92% and 74% respectively: those figures never recovered. He scrapped zero carbon building regulations, so a million homes have been built since 2016 with poor energy standards: our energy bills are £2.5bn higher as a direct result, says Simon Evans of Carbon Brief.

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Remember Cameron trying to fix a wind turbine to his roof as a charming gesture? Notting Hill in west London wasn’t windy enough. But later he axed the “green crap” levy on energy bills that subsidized wind and solar: that trifling 9% could have been replaced from general taxes.

The industry says that onshore wind was on the verge of profitability when Cameron caved in to shire nimbys and effectively banned it, by allowing any objections to bar turbines. Virtually no energy was generated from new onshore wind afterwards. Solar was getting close to viability when its subsidy ax crashed the industry, costing thousands of jobs.

Stuck in planning limbo, 649 onshore wind and solar schemes await consent: they could generate more than enough power to replace Russian imports, says Evans. Johnson may well green light them in his new policy but we should remember the lost decade of clean energy. Onshore windfarms have had strong public support in national polling yet small groups in Tory seats held sway. On the Somerset Levels, I argued with a tiny group protesting against four planned wind turbines besides eyesore pylons, the M5 and the Hinkley Point nuclear site, despite the climate crisis having recently caused disastrous local floods.

I find wind turbines beautiful, like the wings of benevolent albatrosses sweeping across the sky. But beauty is subjective: their purpose makes them magnificent to me, while anti-greens hate them for their virtue signaling.

Though offshore wind has not been as badly affected, uncertainty caused by the Cameron subsidy ax ended the world’s biggest offshore windfarm plan, the £4bn Atlantic Array in the Bristol Channel.

Still local protesters, backed by celebrities, fight large solar farms in Suffolk and the necessary electric substations for a huge offshore wind farm that is planned (not very) close to Aldeburgh, with the capacity to power 1.4m homes. Johnson’s plan needs to include a generous bonus to compensate local communities for projects that are benefiting not only the nation but also the planet.

Labor pledges a £28bn green recovery, with Ed Miliband laying out his plans for a “clean energy sprint” for a huge expansion in renewables and insulation. That’s the challenge for Johnson to meet: he is yet to spell out the politically difficult staging posts to net zero. His green homes grant scheme failed abysmally through incompetence, a £1.5bn fiasco that the National Audit Office found had insulated fewer than 10% of promised homes.

Keeping his Cop26 pledges means rejecting the frackers: Jacob Rees-Mogg in this cabinet, Steve Baker and loud noises off from Nigel Farage. The right’s fracking fascination is a mystery when it would take years for the gas to flow, if it works at all without damage, amid ferocious local opposition. Why aren’t mighty turbines just as excitingly macho? The Renewable Energy Association’s CEO, Nina Skorupska, tells me that the companies she represents, “could construct more than the terawatt-hours imported from Russia within 18 months if the obstacles were unblocked”.

Even before the impact of the invasion of Ukraine, gas already cost about four times more than the price of energy from wind and solar. UK windfarms are starting to repay the treasury, earning more than the contract price agreed for their subsidy. Renewables are faster and cheaper than shale or new North Sea drilling, that would warp future investment towards fossil fuels. The frackers are plain perverse, unless you subscribe to the view that they’re in hock to big oil – or even to Vladimir Putin. Bizarrely, the Mail on Sunday raises questions about Frack Off’s funding and whether its campaigning benefits Putin.

Will there be energy rationing, as in wartime, or blackouts as in the 1970s? Turning down thermostats and reducing the national speed limit to 55mph can avoid that. Road pricing needs accelerating, too, in the switch to electric cars. People will only make sacrifices if pain is fairly distributed and the weak protected with a more generous Warm Homes Discount.

This Ukraine horror drives climate terror from front pages, but February’s IPPC report shows global warming gathering speed. And yet easing energy shortages by hastening global annihilation is the right’s strange cause. The Tories have conveniently forgotten their own “green crap” contribution to the energy gap.

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