The UK government has developed a two-faced and contradictory energy policy.
This summer has seen devastating weather across the world, driven by climate change. Record-breaking temperatures have occurred in several countries including the UK, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Japan, and Oman.
Wild fires have also taken hold in Slovakia, Poland, Latvia, northern Europe – including within the Arctic Circle – and further afield in Canada and the US, while those in Greece claimed at least 70 lives.
And the high temperatures and ensuing droughts are threatening harvests across Europe, which could reduce food supply and push up consumer prices later in the year.
Even before this summer, the UK population was worried about climate change. In April data from the BEIS Public Attitudes Tracker showed that 74 percent of people said they were concerned or very concerned about climate change.
Just fewer than half (46 percent) believe climate change to be caused mainly by human activity. Only 10 percent think it is mainly due to natural processes, with 39 per cent believing it is a combination of the two.
Yet, despite these very real concerns and the tangible effects of climate change, the government has developed a two-faced and contradictory energy policy.
On the one hand, it is pushing ahead with fracking for carbon-emitting shale gas, but it also attempting to tackle climate change and reduce the country’s carbon emissions.
And the forerunner to this Janus-like state of affairs was the Conservative party’s own policy changes in 2015 that led to a collapse in renewables investment.
Out of coal
Fracking firm Cuadrilla was issued a licence to start operations in Lancashire by the government on Tuesday, following a seven-year hiatus during which a new regulatory regime was developed for the sector.
The licence was finally granted after checks from other government bodies, including the Health and Safety Executive and Environment Agency.
The decision has drawn criticism from environmental groups for numerous reasons, including what it means for the UK’s efforts to reduce carbon emissions and tackle climate change.
In recent years the UK has made huge strides in removing coal from its electricity generation. Coal generated only 6.7 percent of electricity last year, and there have been long periods this year with no coal.
The phase out of coal so far contributed to a 17 percent fall in emissions from energy supply in 2015-2016, and a 47 percent drop since 1990.
The government has set a target of October 2025 for removing unabated coal-fired power generation from the electricity system.
But the UK also needs to remove unabated gas from its power system if it is to meet its legally binding target of reducing carbon emissions by 80 percent by 2050 compared to levels in 1990. This means the importance of electricity from renewables is going to increase, and more needs to be deployed.
Total generation from renewables in the UK hit a record high of 29.3 percent of all electricity last year, according to data published on Thursday by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS).
This was an increase the 24.5 percent share for the sector in 2016. Crucially for UK efforts to decarbonise and tackle climate change, electricity generation from coal and gas-fired plants both fell. Fossil fuel generation has fallen by 44 percent since 2010, with renewables growing three-fold over this time.
When nuclear power is included, low carbon electricity’s share of generation increased to a record 50.1 percent, from 45.6 per cent least year. This increase was driven by the increase in renewables generation, as nuclear generation actually fell by 1.9 percent year on year.
Yet despite the success of the renewables sector, its expansion is likely to stop. In May the government was strongly rebuked by the independent Environmental Audit Committee for the decline in clean energy investment in the UK.
According to the committee, investment in clean energy fell by 10 percent in 2016 and 56 percent in 2017. The EAC highlighted key policy decisions taken in 2015 which this government has made no attempt to redress, including:
· a ban on new onshore wind farms
· withdrawing subsidies for solar
· cancelling the Zero Carbon Homes policy due to come into force in 2016
· cancelling the £1bn Carbon Capture & Storage competition
· privatisation of the Green Investment Bank
While the policy changes have severely damaged the renewables sector, they are also far removed from public opinion on renewables. In April’s public attitudes tracker, a staggering 85 percent of people in the UK support renewable energy, with just three percent opposed to it.
This was the highest level of support since the polling began in July 2012, and the joint-lowest figure for people against. The number of people who ‘strongly support’ the use of renewables was also at a record high of 37 percent.
Solar generation was the most popular with 87 percent of people in favour of it, ahead of offshore wind (83 percent), wave and tidal (81 percent), and onshore wind (76 percent).
The decision to recommence fracking is also at odds with public opinion. In April’s attitudes tracker only 18 percent of people said they support fracking – though this was an increase from 16 percent in the previous tracker in February.
But this remains someway below a total of 35 percent opposed to it. And opposition to fracking has been higher than support for it on every tracker since the spring of 2014.
With the government intent on developing shale gas at-scale in the UK, but not seeking to reverse the renewables policy changes it has made since 2015 it is difficult for BEIS and minister of state Claire Perry to maintain that the UK is serious about climate change and decarbonisation.
And as climate change drives more and more extreme weather in the UK and across the world, the government will struggle to defend its regressive climate policies.
Joseph Dutton is a policy adviser for the global climate change think-tank E3G. All views are his own. He tweets at @JDuttonUK