In the same week as the IPCC's stark warnings, the Tories have presented a cynical response that offers no actual solutions, only nationalist bluff, writes Elaine-Graham Leigh
If anyone was hoping that the energy price crisis would have pushed the government’s ‘radical new energy strategy’ in a genuinely green direction, those hopes would have been dashed within the first paragraphs of the foreword. The energy security strategy is no sort of response to the IPCC’s warnings of imminent climate catastrophe. It is disingenuousness and wishful thinking wrapped up in a Union Jack.
In essentials, there’s little in the energy strategy that’s new. The reliance on carbon capture and storage (CCS) to justify continuing fossil-fuel expansion, the timidity about onshore wind if there are local objections (aka ‘putting local communities in control’), and the view of energy efficiency measures simply as options ‘for consumers who want to make improvements’ to their homes are all familiar from previous Tory environment policies.
The innovative element is the framing around energy security as a result of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Suddenly, expanding North Sea gas and oil production isn’t just clinging onto polluting fossil fuels, barely covered by the fig leaf of unproven CCS technology. It’s patriotic. Johnson’s foreword, harking back to the lost Elysium of the Industrial Revolution, when ‘the great coal fields of the North, the Midlands and South Wales heated our homes’, deserves a place on any top-ten list of Tory nationalist nostalgia masquerading as policy.
What we could term ‘British energy for British homes’ is here the entire strategic response to soaring energy prices, which the report blames partly on consumer demand post-pandemic, but mostly on Putin. The long-term solution is therefore ‘to address our underlying vulnerability to international oil and gas prices by reducing our dependence on imported oil and gas’ by replacing it with a ‘second generation’ of North Sea production. This is part of a ‘smooth transition’ to renewables, so is apparently in accordance with commitments to net zero. The strategy also claims that UK gas would have ‘less than half the carbon footprint’ of imported gas. (This is definitely a ‘citation needed’ moment, I assume they’re thinking of the emissions from shipping liquified natural gas.)
There are several layers of disingenuousness here. In the first place, it’s treating household energy bills as if they are entirely a matter for the market. There’s no mention here of Ofgen’s price cap, as that would make clear that the relationship between wholesale gas prices and our energy bills is a political decision, not one that is out of the government’s hands.
In the second place, as we have all learned, because all the private companies, from whom we have to buy our household energy, trade in the international wholesale market, their costs and therefore what they want to charge are subject to the prices in that market. While introducing more North Sea gas may well bring prices down, it wouldn’t make us immune to fluctuations in the international energy markets unless we withdrew gas and electricity from the market entirely. Nationalising production and distribution would be a good idea, but that’s presumably not what the Tory government intends.
In the third place, the report presents this second generation of North Sea fossil fuels as a transitional measure, when it’s unlikely that it is anything of the kind. As we have been seeing for the last six months and more, markets in capitalism are bad at handling orderly transitions. How do you go on getting investment in infrastructure for industries that have a short shelf life? With difficulty. One possible response would be to nationalise oil and gas production so that it could be run down in favour of renewables. Option B is to signal to investors that North Sea fossil fuels are a good bet, with carbon capture and storage magically to make it alright with the climate. True to form, the strategy plumps for B.
The other major element in the energy strategy is a new generation of nuclear power stations. Nuclear power is, we’re told, a quintessentially British technology: the cringe-making Great British Nuclear. We are apparently ‘bringing nuclear home’, as Johnson said in launching the strategy in a speech at Hinkley Point C. According to the strategy, ‘the UK had indeed led the world as the first country to split the atom, and the first to pioneer this new form of power’, referring to the Queen’s speech when she opened the UK’s first nuclear power plant in 1956. This was also the site of one of the world’s first nuclear accidents in 1957, but funnily enough, the strategy omits that bit of British nuclear history.
These attempts to portray nuclear power as part of a purely domestic energy strategy are unconvincing. Uranium still has to be imported, and the company the government is relying on to build the power stations currently in process is EDF, the French state energy company. What this actually means is that our uranium comes from countries securely under the control of the West and that we’re not currently planning to declare war on France.
There are significant issues regarding nuclear power as low carbon, since every part of the process except for the actual nuclear reaction involves carbon emissions. At a time when the prospect of nuclear war feels closer than it has done for about forty years, further investment in technology inescapably linked with weapons of global destruction is not something we should support. Leaving aside these concerns, though, there’s also the question of whether development of new nuclear power stations is even feasible.
Construction of a new power station at Hinkley Point C, in Somerset, is currently nine years behind schedule, largely because of problems with the type of reactor being constructed. The reactor is an EPR, which are supposed to so advanced, they make any fears of nuclear accidents unnecessary. Earlier this year though there were reports that they may have a fundamental design flaw, after a leak at one of the only two then-operational EPRs, at Taishan in China. France’s attempt at an EPR, at Flammanville, is also running nine years behind schedule and it was recently announced, is now delayed again until 2023. It’s not just this one nuclear-reactor design. The planned nuclear power plant at Wylfa, on Anglesey, was scrapped in 2020 after the company, Hitachi, pulled out, citing rising costs.
The announcement of a £120m Future Nuclear Enabling Fund and unspecified further funding is a message to companies like EDF and Hitachi that the government is prepared to throw more money at them for nuclear projects. Whether it will be sufficient inducement remains to be seen. Even if it is, the timescales for producing new nuclear installations are far too long to be a feasible response to the climate crisis. The Hinkley Point C plant has been in development since 1995.
The temptation to see calls for energy security as a result of the invasion of Ukraine as an opportunity for green energy was always one to be resisted. This energy strategy is a demonstration that an energy policy wrapped in nationalist rhetoric is unlikely to be a green one.
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Elaine has been an environmental campaigner for more than a decade. She speaks and writes widely on issues of climate change and social justice, and is a member of Counterfire. She is the author of A Diet of Austerity: Class, Food and Climate Change and Marx and the Climate Crisis. Her sci-fi novel, The Caduca, is out now from The Conrad Press.
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