Powering up Britain – battery not included

Grant Shapps MP, Secretary of State for Energy Security and Net Zero

By Charlie Wilson

Grant Shapps has failed to rise to the task of making the UK government’s Net Zero Plans adequate to meet the target of no more than a 1.5C increase in temperatures by 2050, as the Government was directed to do by the High Court last September.

The Powering Up Britain Report is posed as the government’s response to the legal challenge and the Skidmore Review, but it doubles down on all the structural problems that led to their High Court defeat.

Leaving aside the science, as the IPCC now says that it is imperative that this (Net Zero) is achieved by 2040, and just looking at the legal responsibility; it is quite extraordinary how the UK government has simply dug in on all of the approaches that led it to fail in the High Court in the first place. It’s hard to believe that a further legal challenge won’t be forthcoming from Friends of the Earth and Client Earth.

It’s not as if they didn’t have a lot of scope to do better, because they were missing their targets by so much. The Net Zero Ambition Gap Report by Zero Hour published last December assessed that, “once we include emissions from the goods we import, the UK’s total carbon footprint will exceed its share of the global carbon budget for a 67% chance of 1.5°C by more than a factor of two”. Giving just over £10 billion a year to the Global South in conscience money – and a bid to win export orders – will hardly close that gap.

The UK Net Zero Plan is based on the following self-serving flawed presumptions.

  1. Poor countries with small carbon footprints should cut emissions as much as rich countries with big ones. To put it more bluntly, for these targets to be viable, they depend on the Global South staying poor.
  2. The plans aim at a ‘greater than 50% chance’ of keeping to 1.5°C, so are not aiming for anything like certainty.
  3. 40% of the UK’s total carbon footprint can be ignored. The UK is the largest net importer of CO2 emissions per capita in the G7 and these are not included in the target. And emissions from aviation and shipping will not be taken into account until 2033, so the baseline is deceptively flattering.
  4. The UK can carry on developing and subsidising new fossil fuels.
  5. Housing can carry on being built with less than zero emissions standards, which will use almost 50% of the Climate Change Committee’s recommended carbon budget on its own: while roads and airports can continue to expand, and SUVs be built and sold.
  6. That Negative Emissions Technologies like Biomass or CCUS (Carbon capture, utilisation and storage) and “alternative fuels” are a get out of jail free card that will allow us to carry on almost as we currently do, even though Blue Hydrogen can be worse than coal for the climate and Biofuels threaten food security and drive biodiversity loss.

Shapps’s update is still based primarily on the projection of techno fixes.

  • Great British Nuclear (GBN) is to be launched to deliver new nuclear projects to increase nuclear capacity to around 24GW by 2050 (25% of projected use). Stage 1 of this is to set up a competitive process to select the best Small Modular Reactor technologies. SMRs are even more expensive than conventional nuclear and investment that goes into them is a diversion from potential renewable baseload technology like tidal.
  • Putting £20 billion over 20 years into Carbon Capture, Usage and Storage (see point 6 above).
  • Putting £240 million into a Net Zero Hydrogen Fund, naming two CCUS-enabled hydrogen projects, publishing a shortlist of 20 projects and announcing our intention (sic) to open two further hydrogen funding rounds in 2023. Producing Green Hydrogen on the scale required would need a surplus of renewable energy generation well beyond what they envisage below. CCUS enabled Hydrogen means Blue hydrogen from Natural gas (see point 6 above).

All three of these are not only the wrong priorities, but also based on untested and hopeful technological punts which they can’t be certain of, instead of going hell for leather for renewables, which we can be certain of.

Their proposals on that are a curate’s egg.

  • They restate their aim to develop up to 50GW of offshore wind by 2030 and to quintuple solar power by 2035. But, in place of a quantified plan to achieve this, we have just the latest allocation round of the Contracts for Difference (CfD) scheme, with £205 million going into it, and an allocation of £160 million for pilots to build UK port infrastructure to facilitate floating offshore wind, which uses bigger turbines. Compare the level of this investment with the £240 million going into Hydrogen and the billions going into CCUS. There is no mention of onshore wind at all; the cheapest form of energy generation and the quickest to build and connect to the grid and overwhelmingly popular too. Perhaps they have a death wish.

When it comes to insulation, which the Tories have crashed since 2014, with a succession of short-term schemes which seemed designed to fail; and fail they did. In this document, they are once again long on targets and short on plans.

  • They have an ambition (sic) to phase out new and replacement gas boilers by 2035; but their aim to power homes with “British electricity” (which presumably has red, white and blue electrons), not “imported gas” (especially if it arrives on small boats) isn’t backed up with a systematic plan to train the skilled workers that will be needed and roll out wholesale schemes on an area by area basis, starting with those in the most fuel poverty, it’s just to tweak market incentives at a micro level in the hope that consumers will lead by demand (with those that can afford it going first) so there can be a scattering of penny packet conversions to generate business for half trained white van men. What could possibly go wrong?
  • They have also (separately) not legislated to fix the date for private landlords – generally the owners of homes in the poorest condition, hardest and most expensive to heat, least insulated, most likely to be damp and mouldy, and lived in by the poorest, youngest, often global majority people – to be required to upgrade their energy efficiency from E to C. This was originally set for 2025 for new tenants and 2028 for existing tenants but is now hanging in the wind.
  • An additional Energy Company Obligation scheme, again with the early Victorian type moniker the Great British Insulation Scheme, would insulate 300,000 of the country’s least energy efficient homes with a £1 billion energy efficiency programme by March 2026. That’s 300,000 homes out of the 24 million in the country. At that rate the job will be done by 2108. The overall aim for a 15% demand reduction target by 2030 is hopelessly unambitious. This needs much more serious planning and a national funding for local authorities to coordinate it with a properly trained and climate literate direct labour workforce to complete the task within a decade.

When it comes to the transport sector, 26% of UK CO2 emissions and plateaued for a decade, we again have a complete denial of reality.

  • They aim for “long-term plans for decarbonising road and air travel” (sic). The latter is impossible. There is no such thing as a “sustainable aviation fuel” and their consultation on introducing it from 2025 is future faking by pretending that there is. Air travel is a luxury and will have to be rationed and reduced. Private jets should be banned. There is nothing here about switching from private cars to public transport, from individual to social forms of travel, nothing about redesigning cities or new developments around walkability and community facilities to reduce car dependence, nothing about investment in upgrading rail and urban tramways; just a presumption that we just need to switch from petrol/diesel cars to electric vehicles (EVs). While any remaining road vehicles should be EVs and the £350 million investment in charging infrastructure shouldn’t hurt, there is no consideration here to lighter forms of EV, from mopeds and bikes to rickshaws and scooters, nor any thought given to reining in heavier models. The battery for an electric SUV weighs more than a ton, twice the weight of most models. People using community car clubs will not need to be driving an urban tank, so let’s stop making them
  • Alongside this, in February 2023, the Government published its Nationally Significant Infrastructure Project (NSIP) Action Plan, aiming to reform the planning process. Recommendations to accelerate grid delivery will be presented in June with an action plan scheduled for later this year. This is one to watch because what they come up with will matter a lot. At the moment new renewable installations can take years to get connected to the grid in some cases. The procedures have already had to be streamlined by effectively nationalising their delivery; a concession to the inevitable that has wider implications.

Overall, instead of cutting emissions at source today, at greater scale and at speed, and shifting government investment and incentives wholly into renewable energy (as a100% renewable electricity grid is feasible and the faster it is built the cheaper it will be, as new renewables are now 9 times cheaper than gas) sustainable transport and energy demand reduction, they rely on a Micawberish faith that “something (technological) will turn up”, to enable us to carry on as we are. This is beyond perverse.

Although Labour has also bought into CCUS, “new nuclear” and hydrogen, current plans would at least call time on new oil and gas exploration in the North Sea, unblock onshore wind, invest ten times as much into Port infrastructure for floating offshore wind as the Tories have earmarked, ensure a zero emissions standard for new build homes and put serious money into insulation; which would make more of a dent in carbon emissions and fuel poverty. They would also seek to match the state subsidy given to investors by the US and EU to prevent deindustrialisation in sectors like automotive and steel manufacture.

Ed Miliband argued this week in a speech to the Green Alliance that the attempt to “onshore manufacturing” won’t lead to a displacement of investment so much as a generation of it, as “Global investment of $5trn a year is required in zero carbon from 2030 to 2050 according to the International Energy Agency” and “many businesses want to invest in these areas and many countries can be leaders.”  However, “many” countries in this context translates as those countries with the wherewithal to put investment into the subsidies – essentially the Global North – or those countries in which the state takes the lead, like China.

This is partly an argument with figures like Ed Balls, who have argued that “we” can’t afford the level of investment needed, and Peter Mandelson, whose article Few voters will be thrilled by Keir Starmer turning into another Greta Thunberg” in the Times is a striking demonstration of what happens when you sell what passes for your soul to Rupert Murdoch; who’s tabloid titles put a lot of effort into demonising the climate movement as “the Eco mob”, with the Times serving up the same message with a side order of patrician condescension. Mandelson might think he is being witty and worldly wise, but he is wrong even psephologically. Climate breakdown has been one of the top four voter concerns for over a year, because people can see it happening, and the scale of the impact can’t be missed. People under twenty five are particularly worried, because their future looks terrifying. And they want something done about it. A clear way forward on tackling it is not only vital, it will win their votes, and has the prospect of mobilising them to be part of the solution. Which makes the joke part of the Mandelson article headline an example of blowback; when readers make the comparison between Thunberg’s passionate charisma and Keir Starmer’s pedantic inability to express the scale of the crisis or the scale of the actions needed to meet it. In that, he is like an identikit picture or hologramic image of the limitations of a politics that is unable to break with the interests of the ruling class here and in the United States. The full reality becomes impossible to even imagine let alone address.

Miliband also argues, “we can and should also seek to get a return for government from investment that we make so that we invest and don’t simply subsidise.” This begs the question of ownership, control and purpose, which the Labour leadership shies away from, except in the partially realised form of “Great British Energy” – again that bipartisan penchant for titles redolent of the 1840s, when railway lines built by immigrant labour were exploding optimistically all across the country, and not stopping at Old Oak Common. GBE, however, looks set to be structured more as a support for the private sector than a director of it, as forensically dissected here. This is a strategic flaw, because it is impossible to imagine a transition at the scale and speed we need that leaves companies like Shell, which envisage Net Zero some time next century, in charge.

More strategically, the framing of this as a matter of “energy security” and “patriotism”, in which you can’t drape too many Union Jacks over your energy sources, is the complete opposite of what we need. A viable renewable energy grid needs a lot of connectivity, and that can’t stop at national boundaries. If you look at carbonintensity.org on any given day, a certain proportion of the UK’s energy needs will be being imported by cable from Norway, France or Holland, and some surplus wind power will be being exported along the same cables. We will all need a lot more of this and it requires increasing global interdependence not a “race” in which the pace is set by an “America First” decarbonisation strategy which aims to suck green investment into the US, thereby damaging its subordinate allies. The latter, however, is what the US is imposing on us. Countries unable to commit to subsidy on the same scale as the US and EU will not be “winners”, as capital flows to where the bribes are.

This has wider implications too. Miliband notes that glorious post Brexit UK is already way behind. “There are already 23 clean steel demonstration plants across Europe, but none in the UK. 40 gigafactories across Europe now expected to be open and producing batteries by 2030, but only one is currently certain here.” In fact, there is one small gigafactory already functioning, supplying Nissan in Sunderland, and it is part owned by a Chinese company. Miliband notes the sharp fall in the cost of solar and wind power in the last decade, but studiously avoids noting where most of the investment that has driven that has come from. He says its “countries like us”, but it’s actually China. And China has immense weight in the manufacture of green energy (see graph). If the next Labour government persists with the UK’s increasingly sinophobic foreign policy, it can kiss goodbye to any prospect of inward investment from any of those firms.

Miliband, relatively realistically, argues that green manufacturing in the UK can’t be a full supply chain autarchy – the Great British Supply Chain, of course -of the sort fantasised about by the GMB leadership, among others; but, in the context of a global economy, there will be high skill technological niches that can play a role, provide jobs and export potential, so long as the University sector is integrated into R&D (in the way it is in China, again, not that he acknowledges that). The Tories seem hypnotised by the current situation and possibly content to let a lot of manufacturing go, leaving a residue in Freeports, where barely regulated or taxed fly by night capital can move and manufacture goods in mysterious ways that hardly touch the sides of the domestic economy. Levelling down wholesale.

Graphic from Visual Capitalist Where Are Clean Energy Technologies Manufactured? (visualcapitalist.com)

In this context, the demise of “BritishVolt” and its takeover by an Australian mining company, seeking an outlet for its products in a way that cuts China out of supply chains “in the spirit of Aukus”, is a dangerous dead end if generalised, both economically and the way it reinforces the drive towards war.

Image: Cropped version of: Official cabinet portrait of Grant Shapps. Picture by Simon Dawson / No 10 Downing Street, licensed under CC BY 2.0.