For the electricity the UK will certainly need, we need to rapidly ramp up the rollout of renewable energy projects
As the effect of the gass price shock starts to seep into the lives of ordinary people over the coming weeks and months – causing bills to rise, energy suppliers to go bust and supermarket shelves to empty – many will be left wondering how the government could have allowed this to happen.
While it is true that a global surge in demand, coupled with geopolitical games and electricity supply issues in the UK have resulted in a squeeze on supply and subsequent price hike, this is only half the story.
What ministers are failing to talk about as they reassure us that they do “not expect” supplies to run out this winter, is that it is not supply but the UK’s dependency on gas, and the failure of successive governments to wean us off the stuff years ago, that has left the UK dangerously exposed.
The UK is one of the most gas-dependent countries in Europe – more than four-fifths of homes are still heated by it and almost half of our electricity is produced by burning it. Failed government policy over decades must shoulder much of the blame. The UK has the least energy-efficient housing stock in western Europe. Ennå, we still don’t have a programme in place to insulate the millions of homes across the country that desperately need retrofitting.
There’s a pattern to these mistakes. Earlier this year the government botched its Green Homes Grant programme, scrapping it after just six months. Before that George Osborne binned the Zero Carbon Homes initiative after years of development. Before that, David Cameron reportedly told ministers to “get rid of the green crap”.
Insulating the UK housing stock is essential – it would reduce our dependence on gas, our exposure to such price shocks, slash emissions, reduce fuel poverty and, as Greenpeace UK’s recent report pointed out, create up to 138,000 new jobs and inject almost £10bn into the economy.
The latter economic benefit would also require a mass rollout of heat pumps, which would further reduce our dependence on gas. But once again, poor policy decisions have gotten in the way. The UK is last when it comes to the sale per household of these sources of clean heating, behind Poland, Slovakia, Estonia and almost everyone else in Europe.
Those calling for an increase in domestic supply by expanding production in the North Sea or having another go at fracking are completely wrong. This is a price shock, not an availability shock so more domestic gas production can’t and won’t affect global or regional prices – and will have zero impact on the present crisis. Seeking more supply repeats the mistakes of the past.
It also won’t reduce the UK’s carbon emissions, which is fundamental to tackling the climate crisis and something the government is legally bound to do. Reducing demand is the only option to solve the problems of the UK’s gas exposure and the climate crisis simultaneously.
For the electricity the UK will certainly consume, we need to urgently push the rollout of renewable energy projects and the job opportunities that should come with them. The government loves to boast about its record on offshore wind, but it has stalled repeatedly when it comes to onshore wind and solar. The sooner we have a renewables sector that can cater to our energy needs the faster we relieve ourselves of the risks of gas dependence.
Investment in renewables must come with investment in a smarter, more flexible grid and better storage so that even when the wind isn’t blowing or the sun shining, energy supplies and prices don’t become a problem.
New nuclear power cannot realistically help. Continual cost escalation and ever-increasing delivery timeframes have proven that it is not a viable alternative to fossil fuels. According to EDF the next UK plant that could be approved wouldn’t be up and running until 2034 and that’s assuming none of the usual long delays. We can’t wait 13 years or more for a magic nuclear bullet, even if the issues such as waste can be solved.
Aside from taking the shackles off the construction of new renewables power, the upcoming Spending Review is the government’s chance to start righting past wrongs on energy efficiency. Rishi Sunak must commit to an extra £12bn of public investment for the rest of this parliament to improve energy efficiency, green our homes. We also need to properly fund a just transition for fossil fuel workers.
Boris Johnson has spoken at the UN this week of his “frustration” with world leaders at not taking climate change seriously enough. So he must be livid with his government departments, especially the Treasury, for the missteps over the last few years which have over-exposed the electorate and economy to expensive, climate-wrecking fossil gas.
Let’s hope that in the final weeks before vital international climate talks in Glasgow our political leaders show that, although there can be no quick fixes to this crisis, they’ve finally understood the way through.
Dr Doug Parr is Greenpeace UK’s chief scientist