Government in fantasy land on climate crisis

Boris Johnson plans to slash energy efficiency spending to pay for small nuclear power and hydrogen, writes Dave Toke

A leading energy efficiency champion, Andrew Warren, has alleged that the Government is slashing its energy efficiency programme by 80 per cent. 

The Government’s ten-point plan to tackle the climate emergency includes large amounts of money to pave the way for a programme of ‘small modular reactors’ (SMRs) and payments to gas interests to establish pilot schemes for producing hydrogen from gas with carbon capture and storage (CCS). Finance will also be available to support hydrogen production from windfarms. 

What is becoming clear, amidst the plausible and low-cost pledges to ban petroleum-based cars and install 40GW of offshore wind capacity by 2030, is that the funding package will be dominated by large payments to nuclear and gas industry interests and large-scale cutbacks to the energy efficiency programme. 

Originally, according to the Conservative manifesto in 2019, there was a pledge to “help lower energy bills by investing £9.2 billion in the energy efficiency of homes, schools and hospitals”.  Earlier this year, amid reports that the programme was being resisted by Dominic Cummings, an energy efficiency programme was announced including around £2.5 billion over a six-month period. However, now under this programme, Andrew Warren, the Chairman of the British Energy Efficiency Federation, commented: “[The] current 6-month budget for Green Homes grant + public sector £2.5 bn (e.g. annual rate of £5bn) [is] now cut by 80% to £1bn p.a. And unlike all energy supply projects, nothing [is] committed after March 2022”.

Even if the revised level of £1bn spending a year on energy efficiency is continued beyond 2022, this level of spending will be a great deal less than what was promised in the Conservative manifesto. 

Of course under the last Labour Government millions of homes were given cavity wall and loft insulation. However, since then Conservative governments have embarked on largely imaginary energy efficiency programmes that have delivered almost nothing. 

Amid the Government’s ten-point plan is a commitment to install 60,000 heat pumps in buildings every year by 2028. This is a positive point in the ten-point plan, although there is still a struggle being fought over when the regulations banning gas heating in new homes will come into effect. Will it be 2023, when there will be a better chance of reaching the target set for heat pump installations, or will this be in 2025? On the other hand, the programme to electrify heating is subject to intense negative lobbying by the gas industry. 

It seems clear that whilst programmes of fitting energy efficiency and heat pumps can have immediate carbon-cutting impacts, projects associated with carbon capture and storage and small modular reactors will not see any commercial projects for many years, if ever. It is expected that much of the £525 million set aside for development of SMRs will be swallowed up by a ‘generic design assessment’ of Rolls Royce SMR designs needed to satisfy nuclear safety criteria. I have previously described this SMR programme in the Chartist as a fantasy

The CCS projects to be funded are unlikely to do more than fund small ‘proof of design’ pilot schemes and may amount to little more than large Government subsidies for relatively low percentage blends of ‘blue hydrogen’ and unmitigated natural gas. 

Richard Dixon, Director of Friends of the Earth Scotland, commented on the ten-point plan: 

“This much-trailed 10-point plan is deeply disappointing. In this Climate Emergency, what we needed was investment in measures that would reduce emissions drastically over the next decade and create green jobs immediately. Instead, the UK Government is clearly living in fantasy land with far too much reliance on long-term false solutions to the climate crisis like carbon capture and storage, hydrogen and nuclear. While there are some crumbs from the table in terms of the welcome new target of 2030 to phase out fossil-fuelled cars, overall there is too little new money and too much funding committed to long-term, dangerous distractions.”

That sounds like a very good summary to me! 

Of course, the elephant in the room is the absence of an announcement by the Government that they are going to fund EDF’s Sizewell C to the tune of over £20 billion. Such a commitment, which would include allowing EDF to run up cost overruns at public expense, would dwarf the other items in the ten-point plan, even though it will be for a power plant that will not be generating until well into the 2030s and which will be regarded as technologically obsolete. 

Dave Toke will be speaking about how to achieve 100% renewable energy in Scotland at an online event this Thursday 3rd December – click here for more details.

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