Will political headwinds scare the Government into climate inaction?

By Jonathan Webb, Consultant

Even if the Government remains fully committed in principle to its net-zero objectives, it appears to be hedging its bets in the face of challenging electoral prospects. Will that strategy pay off? 

There has been a steady stream of high-profile criticism, including from within its own ranks, calling on the Government to progress its climate change agenda with greater urgency. And while the Government appear more than happy to hit back at critics and talk up its record to date, a series of recent U-turns suggests a new political calculus will complicate future efforts to deliver the net-zero transition.

The latest flurry of activity was triggered by the release of the Climate Change Committee’s annual progress report, which questioned the Government’s ability to meet its net-zero targets, criticising the lack of urgency and the loss of its position as a global leader in climate action.

A heavyweight list of Conservative MPs have also joined the chorus of critics, including former Prime Minister Theresa May, former COP26 President and Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Alok Sharma, and Chair of the Independent Government Review on Net Zero Chris Skidmore.

This does not appear to have fazed the Prime Minister, who used his appearance in front of the powerful Liaison Committee in Parliament this week to rebuff these criticisms, tout the fact the UK has decarbonised faster than any other G7 country and is still on track to meet its next emissions budget, and claim the major green industry subsidy programmes seen in the US and EU are part of efforts to catch up with the UK’s previous investments. 

While the Government’s record may hold up to scrutiny for now, it appears poised to preserve major barriers to building the new renewable generation seen as critical to meet future emissions reductions targets. 

Ramping up the UK’s renewable generation capacity would support electrification and decarbonisation across the entire energy system, particularly for transport, residential heating, and industrial processes. However, reporting over recent days suggests the Government’s consultation on changes to planning rules will maintain the effective ban on new onshore wind developments. 

RenewableUK’s submission was highly critical of the proposals, claiming they conflicted with the Government’s stated goal of accelerating a fully decarbonised power system by 2035 and would continue to ‘severely hinder investment’ in one of the cheapest forms of renewable energy.But it appears to have failed to convince Ministers to risk backlash from voters opposed to large windfarms and transmission infrastructure being built near their communities.

The logic is at least understandable. With polls suggesting dire prospects for the Conservatives at the next general election, there will be little appetite across Government for a decision that risks upsetting the pockets of support that remain.

But the Climate Change Committee’s report identifies a range of other existing consumer or business friendly climate policies that the Government is not making full use of, such as a lack of activity on £200 million Clean Steel Fund since December 2020. Why is the Government not pulling all the levers it created for itself?

Even putting aside the emissions reduction potential, renewable energy can help lower energy costs for homes and businesses, improve energy security, create highly-skilled jobs needed to build and maintain the development and supporting grid infrastructure, and enable new green industries such as hydrogen production to emerge. There is a compelling case to be made that should be able to convince even the most climate-sceptical, development-cautious voters of its value. 

So the key question is, by restricting new renewable generation options and accepting the current rate of emissions reductions, has the Government hamstrung itself from leveraging the economic opportunity of the net-zero transition to strengthen its electoral prospects?
The Labour Party walking back its own climate funding commitments reduces some of the political risk, but as we race towards the next election, the Government may come to regret disregarding an opportunity for much needed growth and innovation.

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