What the new Conservative government means for UK energy policy

Following Thursday’s general election, the UK has the same prime minister, but a different government. The Conservative Party won an overall majority not only by withstanding Labour’s challenge, but also by vacuuming up most of the seats of their former coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats. Ed Davey, the Lib Dem Energy and Climate Secretary in the last government, lost his seat. David Cameron has not yet announced who will be in charge of energy policy next.

Before the 2010 general election, Cameron used the slogan ‘vote blue, go green’ (blue being the traditional colour of his Conservative party). Having won that election, but without an overall majority, he gave the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) to the Lib Dems, but went there on his second day to promise that he would lead “the greenest government ever”.  The coalition delivered a lot, tripling the UK’s installed renewable energy capacity in five years and legislating to prevent any new coal power stations without carbon capture and storage (CCS).

However, the prime minister has seemed in the last couple of years to lose interest in climate policy. When Labour started campaigning against energy price increases, he is alleged to have told his ministers to ‘cut the green crap’ (and his spokespeople never denied that he’d said this). Many Conservatives do not accept the link between carbon emissions and global warming. So were the coalition’s climate achievements due to the Lib Dems? Will Cameron, shorn of the coalition shackles, go all out for fossil fuel expansion and abandon any climate action? I don’t think that he will, for three reasons: the Conservative manifesto, Cameron’s own beliefs and the fact that there are some significant climate voices in the Tory party.

The Tory manifesto does not propose major changes in energy policy. It promises to continue with a diverse approach to decarbonisation, including new nuclear, fracking, offshore wind and tidal power. It cites the trebling of renewable energy capacity as an achievement of the coalition government in the last 5 years, promises to commit £1billion to carbon capture and storage, to continue to support the UK Climate Change Act and to push for a strong global climate deal in Paris later this year: “one that keeps the goal of limiting global warming to two-degrees firmly in reach”. However, the manifesto also says that a Conservative government will end all financial support for onshore wind, which is very unpopular with many local activists. This approach will make renewable expansion more expensive, because onshore wind is the cheapest available option at present. So it will be bad for those in fuel poverty, because the government will continue to raise most of the subsidy via fuel bills rather than taxes.

Lib Dem absence will weaken UK policy on coal. Their manifesto promised a law that electricity should all be from low-carbon sources by 2030, and a goal to shut all unabated coal by 2025. Labour also promised the 2030 law, though without the earlier closure for old coal. The Tories have not committed to closing unabated coal; indeed the coalition is giving old coal new subsidies under the Capacity Market, a fact which senior Lib Dems openly blame on the Conservaties. This is highly ironic. Coal miners brought down Edward Heath’s Tory government in 1974, and tried to bring down Margaret Thatcher’s, but it is now the Tories who want to keep the coal fires burning.

On a more positive note, the Conservative manifesto is strong on conservation. It states that we should be “the first generation to leave the natural environment in a better state than that in which we found it” and promises to protect our “green and pleasant land”. Cameron knows a lot about the natural environment. I have only met him once – when I was running Greenpeace UK and he met with the heads of green NGOs. He came in and made some sensible introductory remarks, without notes as he always did in opposition. I thought that perhaps he had just been well-briefed and had a good memory. But he then engaged in a substantial conversation with us, and really knew his stuff on conservation. I was impressed, and so – more significantly – were my colleagues from conservation groups. These groups are not always helpful on climate policy: they often oppose wind farms, for example. But, in the UK at least, they accept that the greatest threat to wildlife and to landscape protection is uncontrolled climate change. That is why the RSPB (Royal Society for the Protection of Birds) has said that most wind farms should be supported.

The Lib Dems deserve most of the credit for progress on energy policy between 2010 and 2015. But it was a coalition, so the Tories deserve some credit too. Conservative Greg Barker was an energy minister for four years (unusual longevity in that post in Britain), and successfully championed community energy – an approach on which the UK has much to learn from many other countries, notably Germany and Denmark. Barker stood down from parliament, but is now advising London mayor Boris Johnson on sustainable development, so well placed to help community energy expand in the capital.

Before 2010 Greg Clark was shadow energy and climate secretary; in the coalition he was a senior minister but not in the cabinet. He is a serious and effective politician who cares about climate action. He is also, unusually for a politician, quite modest – accepting that he has things to learn. Meanwhile John Gummer, Environment Secretary in the last majority Conservative government (1992-97), is now chairman of the Committee on Climate Change, with the role of advising governments on future carbon budgets. Gummer has become an impressive climate champion.

It is not that unusual for a Conservative to take climate change seriously. What is more unusual about Gummer is that he is a pro-EU Tory. The UK will now have an ‘in-out’ referendum on the EU before the end of 2017. This will dominate UK politics until then, just as the Maastricht Treaty dominated the government of John Major from 1992 to 1997.

Indeed 2015 seems eerily reminiscent of 1992. The opinion polls in 1992 suggested a close election and a possible Labour government. Instead, we had a Conservative government with a small majority. Anti-EU Tory MPs, including some ministers (or bastards, to use Major’s own description of them) played havoc with the government’s attempts to ratify Maastricht. Cameron will have similar problems on Europe. He said during the election campaign that he would not seek a third term as prime minister. So other senior Conservatives will spend much of their time and effort seeking to succeed him. And saying anything even vaguely supportive of ‘Brussels bureaucrats’ would not enhance their prospects of success. Many Conservatives accept privately that the EU has a legitimate role to play in climate and energy policies; they just don’t like to say so publicly. So any UK engagement in the energy union looks less likely this week than it did last week.

This article was published in Energy Post



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