Hasty changes to Sunak’s climate strategy reveal a warring Tory party
Rishi Sunak, the UK prime minister, headed to Oxfordshire on Thursday to visit a development facility for nuclear fusion, the early-stage concept that promises unlimited clean energy at an unspecified future point, if only some hefty physical constraints can be overcome.
He was accompanied by Grant Shapps, energy and net zero secretary, for the biggest energy and climate change announcement of his premiership, a comprehensive package of measures encompassing everything from onshore wind and solar power to carbon taxes and heat pumps.
“When global energy supplies are disrupted and weaponised by the likes of Putin, we have seen household bills soar and economic growth slow around the world,” said Sunak, of the “powering up Britain” energy package. “We have stepped in to shield people from its worst impacts by helping to pay around half the typical energy bill. But we are also stepping up to power Britain and ensure our energy security in the long term, with more affordable, clean energy from Britain, so we can drive down energy prices and grow our economy.”
Yet, only a few days before, the plan was to hold the launch in Aberdeen, the oil and gas capital of the UK. Local businesses had been primed, oil and gas specialists were ready, shoving their minor interests in green alternatives – such as hydrogen – hastily to the fore, for an event to be hailed as “energy security day”. Fossil fuels would be a necessary part of that energy security, they had been assured.
And, only a few days before that, the plan was not to foreground energy security at all – the event was to be called “green day”, and the focus would be clearly on renewable energy, reducing greenhouse gas emissions and tackling the climate crisis, as well as bringing down household bills through supporting clean power.
Tom Burke, co-founder of the thinktank E3G, and a veteran government adviser, said the whirl of changes in the run-up to the launch were both bewildering and revealing. “This is a level of chaos that reveals the extent of the internal unresolved disputes within the party on these issues,” he said. “There is an anti-green faction in the Tory party, and this chaos has been all about them.”
The energy strategy, running to well over a thousand pages across its reams of documents, covers everything from nuclear fusion – which some experts regard as an unconvincing distraction, when technology to cut emissions today should be the priority – to electric vehicle charging points.
Sunak had little choice but to publish some form of strategy this week, as last year the high court ruled that the government’s existing strategy to meet its legally binding target of net zero emissions by 2050 was inadequate. The judge in the case, brought by Friends of the Earth and other campaigners, ordered a revamp by the end of this month, also the deadline for the government to publish its response to the review of net zero by Tory MP Chris Skidmore, published in January.
To complete the package, the chancellor of the exchequer, Jeremy Hunt, decided to publish his strategy for green investment at the same time, setting out how the private sector is expected to fund the comprehensive overhaul of the UK’s economy needed to reach the net zero target.
For the government, this marks a major cross-Whitehall operation, encompassing policy that spans the Department for Transport, Department for Levelling Up, Department for Business and Trade, and Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, as well as the Treasury and the Department for Energy Security and Net Zero, and Downing Street.
The government’s focus is timely, given rapidly growing concerns that the UK is falling behind internationally, which have been given new urgency by the war in Ukraine and the soaring price of energy. The US is pushing forward strongly with its $369bn Inflation Reduction Act, which aims to make America a superpower for clean energy technologies and offers tax breaks to manufacturers.
Europe, after initial outrage that it was losing its green leadership status, is now hard at work on its response. Hundreds of billions of euros of investment are at stake, and the sacred cow of state aid rules is likely to be slaughtered in pursuing them.
So the key question is: does the UK’s new energy and climate package measure up to what other countries are planning? For most of the experts and campaigners delivering their verdict on Thursday, the answer was a clear no.
Related: The UK’s ‘green day’ has turned into a fossil fuel bonanza – dirty money powers the Sunak government | George Monbiot
Mel Evans, head of climate at Greenpeace UK, summed it up: “Ministers talk about leading the world, but the UK is not even making it to the starting blocks of the green tech race. A good government would go all in on renewable, efficient energy to give millions of people warm homes, clean air, lower bills and a safe climate – but powering Up Britain is a far cry from what this country needs.”
Despite the support for offshore wind, the talk of electric vehicles and the focus on carbon capture, there were too many misses. Plans to insulate 300,000 homes were dismissed as puny, compared with the 14m that need upgrades. Onshore wind turbines are still, in effect, banned, despite small changes to the planning rules. Hydrogen is still being touted for home heating, despite studies showing it will not work. Solar panels will not be mandated on new-build housing, and the heat pump scheme is still flawed.
Burke laid the blame at the door of a prime minister besieged by a warring party. “This feels like a party that is internally divided, that can’t come up with a coherent story, that can’t even agree what the story is,” he told the Guardian. “And this is what is spooking investors: this anti-green faction of losers who are going to turn the UK into a loser, in the global race for green prosperity.”