AAs the horror of the brewing energy crisis takes shape and the austerity party prepares to borrow £150billion just to pay the bills, government ministers desperately want you to remember a thing: it’s all Vladimir Putin’s fault. Although the terrifying spike in gasoline prices is due to Putin’s economic war on Europe, the emergency we face this winter is not simply a product of those high prices. It is also the product of successive Conservative governments that deliberately rejected policies that would have reduced our reliance on gas in the first place.
Take the insulation of houses and buildings. The past decade has been a time of woeful neglect for one of the most obvious policies in economics. Report after report, campaign after campaign, year after year, governments have been reminded of the caution of investing to make our buildings cheaper and cleaner to heat. Direct subsidies for low-income people, financial support for households and private businesses and properly funded programs for the public sector could have ended the UK’s reign as least isolated country in Western Europe. Adopting these policies would have cost less than £5billion and would have returned money to the Treasury over time through a myriad of economic benefits, even before gas prices skyrocketed.
Yet it seemed there was no one the ministers would listen to. They ignored the recommendations of the Committee on Climate Change (the government’s official advisers), NGOs, the National Infrastructure Commission and the opposition. The result has been a staggering 85% drop in home insulation installations between 2012 and 2019. Under current plans, it will take 700 years to retrofit UK homes to low-carbon heating. After a decade of inaction, we are now paying the price for such dependence on gas.
Successive governments have also ignored the benefits of cheap renewables. It’s no news that wind and solar power are cheap. This was already the case in 2015, when David Cameron’s government banned new onshore wind farms and pulled the rug out from under the solar industry. In absolute terms, the cost of solar has dropped 88% since 2010 and onshore wind has fallen by 57%, although they were both intentionally excluded from the new deployment. In relative terms, the figures are now staggering: building a new solar or wind farm now costs nine times less than functioning an existing gas plant.
The government should be credited for supporting the extraordinary success of offshore wind in recent years. But nothing stopped the rapid deployment of onshore wind and solar at the same time. If that had happened, we would currently have much more cheap, local, and clean energy to ride out this storm. If the Tories hadn’t ‘cut the green crap’ over the past decade, households would now be saving an average of £220 on their annual energy bills. This figure will likely rise further as gas prices follow suit. Imagine what a real commitment to the energy transition could have accomplished.
Instead, fake solutions won out. Chief among them was hydraulic fracturing. Despite plummeting levels of public support and repeated warnings from experts that a UK fracking industry would do nothing to cut bills, fracking has retained mythical status among Tory administrations. The relentless pursuit of an industry that was going nowhere wasted valuable time and obscured the real solutions at hand.
The obsession with getting every last drop out of the North Sea oil and gas industry has reproduced a disastrous logic among Tory ministers. The North Sea deposits are in decline for a very simple reason: we have mined, sold and burned most of what was there. Going after what’s left will do nothing to reduce gas bills, because our reserves are only a drop in the ocean of world gas prices. Continuing fracking anyway, as Liz Truss intends to do, will not reduce energy bills – it will only undermine the UK’s ability to lead climate action.
And then there is nuclear. Nuclear power produces carbon-free electricity, but its delivery is very slow and relatively expensive. Hinkley Point C, the first of a supposed new generation of British nuclear power stations, will not open for (at best) another four years. It will be a minimum of £5bn over budget. If gas prices never return to pre-2021 levels, Hinkley won’t look like a bad deal to consumers. But we still have to deal with the current situation. If the political enthusiasm for Hinkley had instead been directed towards renewable energy and cheap insulation, we would already be feeling the benefits.
There is a sadly tired story behind these failures: the power of vested interests. The access of frackers and drillers to the highest levels of the Conservative Party since 2010 has left us with an irrational energy policy. Instead of reducing our energy use through insulation and meeting our needs with cheap domestic renewables powered by sun and wind, UK energy policies have sought to secure corporate profits. These energy companies have no interest in achieving a truly modern, clean and reliable energy system that we can all rely on.
Borrowing £150billion just to cap energy bills at already historic levels – most going to oil and gas producers – is just the start of the pain. We are governed by a party that thinks the answer to a fossil fuel crisis is more fossil fuels. It is incapable of governing the basis of any economy – the energy system.