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The UK Energy Bill: Causing a Quarrel in Parliament

This week, the question of Britain’s energy future was brought before Parliament in Westminster. The under-consideration Energy Bill, along with a number of other strategic policy considerations, had originally looked towards setting a 2030 decarbonization target, which would have dictated the UK’s energy generation for decades to come by necessitating a large-scale overhaul of the system towards low-carbon technologies. The plan, though, was dropped in the early stages. But a further amendment lodged by former Energy Minister Tim Yeo, proposing the reinstatement of a target, meant that on Tuesday, MPs had the chance to overturn the decision.

“If it is indeed true, as the Secretary of State asserted yesterday, that we are heading for substantial decarbonization of electricity anyway, what objection to this amendment can there possibly be?” Yeo had posited in the session before votes were cast. He was referencing a speech made on Monday by Energy Minister, Ed Davey, in which he had said in no uncertain terms that, “Every year we delay [on reducing emissions], the harder the target will be to reach, and the more severe the action required.” But when the “ayes” and the “nays” had been totted up, it was the Conservative Party led opposition to the amendment that came out victorious, leaving green campaigners disgruntled and the shape of Britain’s future energy program in some doubt.

The narrowness of the victory – with a number of MPs choosing to vote against their party line and others persuaded only by a Tory (Conservative Party) promise to reassess in 2016 after the general election – suggested just how contested the issue has been. By all accounts, the debate is not a straight shoot-out between the ruling coalition and the Labour opposition, one in favor of green regulation and one not. In 2010, the incoming government pledged to become the greenest in history. That desired accolade has been called into question this week, with David Cameron whipping his MPs into voting against the amendment. For the proposed decarbonization target is about more than just a commitment to combatting climate change: there are billions of pounds at stake, too.

With the UK economy still lumbering its way slowly out of recession, those who favored Yeo’s suggested amendment had hoped that setting a target would help to secure large-scale investment in low-carbon technologies and renewable energy generation. To business owners supporting the idea, the measure would have helped kick-start economic growth, while environmental activists saw that a 2030 target would have put the UK on track to meet its 2050 carbon reduction target. Yet the prevailing counter argument, championed by Chancellor George Osborne, favors the so-called “dash for gas”, on the basis that natural gas options are said to be less expensive than new low-carbon options.

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What the target means

In line with the Climate Change Act (2008), the UK is committed to meet a legally binding target to reduce carbon emissions by 80 percent by 2050. In the legislation’s terms, “It is the duty of the Secretary of State to ensure that the net UK carbon account for the year 2050 is at least 80% lower than the 1990 baseline.” In simple terms, by 2050, if successful, Britain will have nearly wiped out its reliance on burning fossil fuels for electricity generation.

Thus, a 2030 decarbonization target would not only set the carbon emissions reductions agenda for the next seventeen years, it would, according to supporters, help to secure investment in low-carbon projects that would be in process way beyond that date. As Fiona Harvey, writing for the Guardian on Monday, put it, “The Energy Bill … will influence investment decisions over the next five years that will still be operating in thirty years’ time.” In other words, only a concrete carbon reduction plan will secure investment in clean energy industries in Britain, which may otherwise head elsewhere, away from British shores.

On Monday June 3rd, Britain’s Times newspaper featured an advert taken out by the environmentalNGO, Friends of the Earth, stating, “If MPs don’t support the clean power target in tomorrow’s vote, 1000s of jobs could disappear overseas.” The text, placed next to an image of German Chancellor Angela Merkel and a caption reading, “Danke for the jobs, Herr Osborne,” although meant to be a light-hearted quip, read retrospectively, feels more like gallows humor.

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Opposition and support

Writing this Monday on his Conservative Party blog, Charles Hendry MP laid out his and his party’s reasons not to set a decarbonization target, citing the fact that a target is only a speculative measure, and thus potentially harmful. “The challenge with a decarbonization target set now for 2030 is that we cannot yet know how it can be met – or indeed, if it can be met.”

Hendry added that, “Whilst I understand the ambition behind the proposed decarbonization target, I also recognize that it has consequences which have not yet been thought through. Ultimately, energy security and our low carbon future depend on clarity for each technology, not on a lofty ambition which no one knows how it can be delivered.”

Hendry’s is perhaps a credible stance. Certainly, the factors that would need to be considered in order to set a target are numerous and ever changing. Knowledge about climate change is continually developing, as are low carbon technologies; and the changing of Britain’s economic, fiscal and social circumstances, too, are likely to play a part in how achievable any target might be.

But the whole issue is a question of risk and reward. The “dash for gas” route – along with opting to delay setting a target until 2016 – is seemingly the lowest risk approach, financially speaking. For there is enough doubt, among the Tories, surrounding the wholehearted turn towards renewables – enough doubt not to throw all eggs in one basket. And it is understandable that the ruling party would want to ensure its self-preservation; after all, missed targets and false promises are the undoing of public support – and ammunition for the opposition. Looking after short-term interests, though, would not seem likely to adequately solve long-term problems.

While the House of Commons vote was a close run thing, the afternoon’s preceding session also demonstrated the nuances of the debate. In-house squabbling both across and between political parties suggested that this is not a case of clear-cut party politics, but something far more complex. Hendry’s paradoxical conclusion, written before the commons vote, perhaps most aptly crystallizes the indecision that surrounds the issue: “One of the key decisions for Parliament now is to decide whether we need to include a formal decarbonization target in the Bill. As an enthusiastic supporter of a low-carbon economy, I don’t think we do.”

HS2: A case in point

In an interview for the Guardian on Monday, Yeo had spoken of how “the failure to set firm targets on cutting carbon emissions from electricity generation will destroy the environmental case for the High Speed Two [HS2] rail project,” a £35 billion program to electrifying a spinal section of Britain’s railway network. Certainly, it is in looking at existing long-term projects such as HS2 that the potential repercussions of the defeated carbon target amendment can be seen.

In two phases, the HS2 project seeks to provide high-speed inter-city rail service, first between London and Birmingham and, later, between Birmingham and Scotland, via two further routes that will pass through England’s northern cities. The completion of both phases is two decades away (phase one is due to open in 2026, phase two in 2033); but should Britain’s heavy reliance on fossil fuels continue, without the proposed 2030 decarbonization target in place, HS2 may struggle to meet its ambitious environmental goals.

For while the overall environmental impact of HS2 is a matter of debate, the project is premised on the basis that by attracting passengers from less carbon-friendly transport modes – particularly from those who currently favor internal domestic flights – it can help make modest carbon reductions. A report published in September 2012 noted that, “it is only under our most pessimistic scenario that Phase One of HS2 fails to deliver net carbon savings.”

Some would argue that Tuesday’s vote goes a way towards bringing such a scenario into being. Indeed, without a set target, HS2 could open and be run on non-low-carbon energy, without any imperative to do otherwise. Such an outcome would risk undermining the carbon-neutral design HS2’s developers have so far pledged.

The state of the debate

When the amendment was defeated in Parliament, Yeo, making a statement in the House of Commons, spoke of a further opportunity for the amendment to be discussed. “Fortunately, the House of Lords still has a chance to amend the Energy Bill to ensure the government takes the advice of its statutory independent climate advisors for decarbonizing the electricity generation industry,” he noted, referencing the fact that the Bill is only part way through its route to legislation.

The to-ing and fro-ing that has been a feature of the legislative process surrounding the carbon target so far is something of a microcosm of the wider discussion about climate change in the UK. For all the evidence that points towards the need for carbon reduction, there is simply no outright consensus among the people who are in a position to change matters – politicians – or influence public opinion – journalists.

As an example, Energy Secretary Ed Davey gave a speech on Monday about the need for action against global warming, in which he suggested that, “only 3% of climate change experts question man’s contribution.” A day later, his words were roundly poo-pooed by Britain’s Telegraph environment reporter, James Delingpole, who attacked Davey’s statistics before commenting in conclusion that, “Ed Davey is a disgrace and an embarrassment – by some way the most damaging and dangerous minister in Cameron’s Coalition.”

In the same speech, Davey bemoaned the fact that the climate change issue is being turned into a political football. By the same token, one might suggest the same of the decarbonization question. And while there is entertainment in an end-to-end contest, many will be crossing their fingers for a comeback – and then a victory – for the team in green.

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