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Sun 5 December 2021

The Government’s prevarication over new green policies, particularly when compared to international efforts, is criticised in a new report by a think tank founded by a Conservative MP

The Government’s lack of progress in facilitating the expansion of renewable energy has been criticised in a new report, which argues that the UK still lags behind other nations in key indicators such as the provision of environmental patents for new technologies.

Onward – a centre-right think tank founded by Conservative MP Neil O’Brien and directed by former No. 10 special advisor Will Tanner – has produced a report arguing that “unless we do something about it, this innovation deficit will severely inhibit our ability to innovate our way to net zero – driving up costs, heightening disruption and locking the UK into a higher emission pathway”.

That these criticisms have been issued by the Conservatives’ putative allies indicates the extent of its failure to deliver on its promises to invest in its Green Industrial Revolution.

It demonstrates how, ahead of the crucial COP 26 climate change conference in Glasgow next month, confidence in the Government’s handling of the energy transition the country faces is dwindling.


Britain Falling Behind

The report – which contends that substantial change is required for the UK to reach its net zero carbon emissions target by 2050 – found that between 2012 and 2016, Germany and China respectively filed 246% and 114% more patents for environmental technologies than Britain. 

China, which now manufactures 73% of the world’s electric vehicles and 80% of its solar panels, has recently taken steps to phase out coal power. 

President Xi Jinping told the UN General Assembly in New York in September that “China will step up support for other developing countries in developing green and low-carbon energy, and will not build new coal-fired power projects abroad”.

This adds some context to the ongoing argument that it is pointless for the UK to attempt to reduce emissions while China remains the world’s most egregious polluter. In fact, when considering the expansion of green technology and the steps taken to phase-out coal, oil and gas, the UK has failed to create a mass market for renewables. Investment in research and development for low carbon technologies has actually declined over the past decade.

Onward’s report also revealed how, in two of the UK’s most carbon intensive industries – land transport and construction – companies can spend as little as 0.01% and 0.09% of their annual turnover on research and development facilitating decarbonisation. 

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The report also exposed how the Government is falling behind on its promise to provide 600,000 heat pumps to replace gas boilers by 2028. On the current trajectory, its authors state, it would take until 2187 to adequately fulfil this promise. According to the charity National Energy Action, rates of home insulation fell by 95% between 2012 and 2019.

Moreover, research by the energy regulator Ofgem has revealed the consequences of the Government’s inaction in divesting from heavily emitting infrastructure. The 26 million gas boilers in Britain emit 92 million tons of CO2 each year, which is over double the 41 million tons emitted by all of the remaining gas-fired power stations in the country. The research also showed how gas boilers emit 8.5 times as much nitrogen oxide as the country’s entire gas fleet.

Even the Government’s recent announcement that households would be offered subsidies of £5,000 from next April to aid the installation of low-carbon heat pumps, with £450 million having been allocated for the next three years, has been criticised as insufficient. 

Shadow Business Secretary Ed Miliband argued that the policy was “meagre, unambitious and wholly inadequate” in comparison to Labour’s proposed £6 billion spending plan for heating and low-carbon insulation.

The Government’s housing policy failures, which have been exacerbated by an energy crisis driving up fuel costs, are not limited to its slow progress on retrofitting.

Back in March, it scrapped the Green Homes Grant which offered grants of up to £10,000 for heating installation. Liberal Democrat Leader Ed Davey, who was the Energy Secretary in 2010’s Coalition Government, has argued that this decision resulted in “making the heating bill crisis even worse for families all over the country”.

Chaitanya Kumar, the New Economics Foundation think tank’s head of environment and green transition, has also criticised the Government’s housing policies. “​If we are to meet our climate targets and avoid devastating climate breakdown, we will need to retrofit at least 19m homes by 2030,” he said. “Currently our damp and leaky housing stock is one of the largest sources of carbon emissions in the UK, our home energy use alone being around 20% of total UK carbon emissions.”

Onward’s report suggested that solutions may include creating a National Energy Laboratory to “conduct high-risk net zero research to overcome energy system challenges”.

Its co-author Ted Christie-Miller said: “The Government needs to consciously create the incentives and build the institutions necessary to create an explosion in the research and development, commercialisation and diffusion of key net zero technologies. If we don’t act fast, we will pay the price in higher emissions, lower competitiveness, greater societal disruption and higher costs for consumers and taxpayers.”


Rising Gas Prices, Falling Renewable Costs

The recent energy crisis, which has demonstrated that natural gas supplies are susceptible to rapid price fluctuations due to the uncertainties within global markets, has bolstered the case for the acceleration of alternative energy sources – not least because the costs of renewables are falling and threatening to undercut the prices of fossil fuels. 

A report by the International Renewable Energy Agency published in July concluded that nearly two-thirds of wind and solar projects built globally during 2020 are likely to generate cheaper electricity than the cheapest coal fired power stations. Its research also found that, in under a decade, the cost of solar power has declined by more than 85%, while onshore wind has declined 56% and offshore wind by nearly 48%.

According to the organisation’s director general, Francesco La Camera, “renewables present countries tied to coal with an economically attractive phase-out agenda that ensures they meet growing energy demand, while saving costs, adding jobs, boosting growth and meeting climate ambition”.

There is a significant public appetite for decarbonising infrastructure across Britain.

According to an Opinium poll conducted for the New Economics Foundation, 65% of those surveyed, including 64% of Conservative voters, supported the introduction of a National Retrofitting Taskforce, which would employ and reskill large swathes of the population.

The Onward report, which has outlined the shortcomings of the Government’s decarbonisation strategy, has shown the steps that must be taken if Britain is to be considered a world leader in averting ecological breakdown. Boris Johnson’s administration, having provided only meagre solutions for home insulation and renewable energy provision, continues to prioritise prevarication over substantive environmental policy.

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