The Energy Crisis Exposes the Government’s Dangerous Dependence on Fossil Fuels
Thomas Perrett investigates the Government’s poor track record on developing clean energy despite its boasting to the contrary
The recent energy crisis, which has seen gas prices rise by more than 250% since the beginning of the year, with a 70% rise since August, has shown that fossil fuel-based energy sources are susceptible to volatile price fluctuations in global energy markets.
Driven by depleted reserves in northern Europe, a surge in demand in east Asia leading to supplies being diverted away from European markets, and the Russian firm Gazprom pumping gas into domestic storage sites ahead of a cold winter, the present crisis has highlighted the unreliability of Britain’s dependence on natural gas, which is now three times as expensive as wind power.
It has also demonstrated how, despite the Government’s attempts to portray the UK as a world leader in battling the climate crisis, it has not only continued to solicit the support of the oil and gas industry, but has faltered in leading the transition away from fossil fuels, leaving the country dependent on intermittent energy sources. These failures in Government policy have been years in the making.
Slow Progress On Decarbonisation
Ahead of next month’s COP26 climate change conference, the Prime Minister has touted Britain’s success in decarbonising the economy, having set ambitious targets which include cutting carbon emissions by 78% from 1990 levels by 2035.
Setting out a 10-point plan for a ‘Green Industrial Revolution’ last November, Boris Johnson pledged to turn Britain into the “Saudi Arabia of wind power generation” by harnessing offshore wind to power every home by 2030.
“Imagine Britain when a Green Industrial Revolution has helped to level up the country,” he wrote in the Financial Times. “You cook breakfast using hydrogen power before getting in your electric car, having charged it overnight from batteries made in the Midlands. Around you the air is cleaner; trucks, trains, ships and planes run on hydrogen or synthetic fuel.”
Much of the progress that Britain has made on climate change cannot be attributed to Johnson’s administration. During the Coalition Government of 2010 to 2015, Liberal Democrat MP Ed Davey contributed significantly to attempts to phase-out fossil fuels as Energy Secretary. He is unconvinced of the sincerity of the Conservatives’ pledges on climate change.
Davey was instrumental in the expansion of wind power, despite attacks from sceptical Conservative colleagues and regularly criticised the party for its insufficient commitment to decarbonisation and opposition to onshore wind subsidies, describing former environment secretary Owen Paterson’s call to suspend the 2008 Climate Change Act, which committed the UK to an 80% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from 1990 levels by 2050, as “reckless in the extreme”.
The Government’s recent actions have also drawn criticism from Shadow Energy Secretary Ed Miliband. Commenting on official figures from the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, which showed that the rate of growth of renewable energy had fallen every year since 2015, he told The Independent: “Once again we see the signs and impact of the gap between this Government’s rhetoric and reality. They are climate delayers. It is the Government’s failure to plan ahead by scaling-up our zero carbon energy supply that has left our country so reliant on the international gas market and vulnerable to soaring gas prices.”
The figures also showed that, in the year leading up to December 2020, renewable energy capacity had grown by 2.1%, in contrast with a 6.1% increase the previous year, and an average annual rise of 18% during the previous decade.
Prevalence of Oil and Gas
Under Boris Johnson’s Government, not only has the advancement of renewable technology slowed, but the collusion between politicians and the fossil fuel industry has arguably worsened.
Despite the Prime Minister labelling the upcoming COP26 conference a “turning point for humanity”, research has shown that the Conservative Party has received donations totalling £1 million from the oil and gas industries since the 2019 General Election – including a £25,000 donation from Amjad Bseisu, chief executive of North Sea oil firm EnQuest.
This has had significant implications for the country’s dependence on heavily-polluting fuels during the energy crisis. UK-based power generator Drax could retain coal-fired power stations to supplement the ongoing decline in energy from depleting natural gas sources. Its chief executive, Will Gardiner, told the Financial Times that the UK would face a “tough winter” as a result of record energy prices and that “we’re very aware that the country might have a significant problem and if there’s something Drax can do we will absolutely think about doing that”.
Gardiner also said that he had a “good working relationship” with the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng. Indeed, since Kwarteng was appointed, ministers at the department have met with fossil fuel and biomass producers nine times as often as with renewable energy producers. Ministers held 130 one-on-one meetings with energy producers from 22 July 2019 to 31 March 2021 – 63 of which were with producers of carbon-intensive energy sources. This indicates that, despite the Government’s own estimates, the UK is not entirely committed to phasing-out fossil fuels.
The Government has also recently reneged on proposals to decommission fossil fuel- intensive infrastructure. Earlier this month, anti-coal campaigners called on it to scrap plans for a new coking coal mine in Cumbria, which – according to environmentalist think tank The Green Alliance – would emit the equivalent of 8.4 million tons of CO2 annually until 2049. According to Government advisors at the Climate Change Committee, the mine gives a “negative impression of the UK’s climate priorities” ahead of the COP26 conference.
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Chronic Under-Investment in Renewables
A recent report by energy regulator Ofgem has shown that the 26 million gas boilers in Britain emit 92 million tons of CO2 per year – more than double the 41 million tons emitted by all of the remaining gas-fired power stations in the country.
The research also revealed that gas boilers emit 8.5 times as much nitrogen oxide as the country’s entire gas fleet. Despite the Government having theoretically committed to installing 600,000 heat pumps annually to replace gas boilers by 2028, the charity National Energy Action has found that, between 2012 and 2019, rates of home insulation installation fell by 95%.
This is particularly galling considering that Britain’s continued reliance on gas heating in homes could be mitigated by the electrification of the country’s housing stock. Replacing gas boilers with heat pumps could prove to be a central element of the Government’s decarbonisation strategy, as according to Jan Rosenow, European director at environmental NGO the Regulatory Assistance Project, “even if all of the electricity used by heat pumps was generated by gas the much higher efficiency of heat pumps would still result in a reduction of gas use”.
Indeed, leading figures within the renewable energy industry have criticised the Government for failing to address Britain’s continued reliance on natural gas imports and foreign energy sources, despite the rhetorical promises to spur the development of renewable energy. One such figure is Dan McGrail, head of trade association Renewable UK, who has argued that the gas crisis has demonstrated the importance of “home grown energy” to the economy.
Speaking at Renewable UK’s offshore wind conference, McGrail said that “the lesson for me is that we’re still too reliant on gas in the UK for both power and heat. That reliance leaves us exposed to price shocks and global supply crunches” and that “great advances in technology” had accelerated the development of wind power as an alternative to fossil fuels.
The falling costs of renewable energy, coupled with public pressure to move away from polluting fuels and the constraints of international agreements, have made fossil fuels a risky option for investors and an impractical solution for states looking to alleviate energy crises.
Yet the Government, through its continued collusion with members of the oil and gas industry and its inability to effectively divest from fossil fuel projects, has left the country vulnerable at a volatile time. As the climate crisis escalates, and incidents of extreme weather intensify, Britain cannot be left dependent on intermittent and often unreliable sources of energy.
As COP26 approaches, a substantial gap still remains between the force of the Government’s rhetoric and the realities of its record.
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