As the full horror of the gathering energy crisis takes shape and the party of austerity prepares to borrow £150bn just to pay the bills, government ministers are desperate for you to remember one thing: it is all Vladimir Putin’s fault. Although the terrifying spike in gas prices is driven by the economic war Putin is waging on Europe, the emergency we face this winter is not simply a product of those high prices. It’s also a product of successive Conservative governments wilfully dismissing policies that would have reduced our reliance on gas in the first place.
Take insulating homes and buildings. The past decade has been a period of dismal neglect for one of the most economically obvious policies. Report after report, campaign after campaign, year after year, governments have been reminded of the prudence of investing to make our buildings cheaper and cleaner to heat. Direct grants for those on low incomes, financial support for households and private firms, and properly funded schemes for the public sector could have ended the UK’s reign as the least insulated country in western Europe. Adopting these policies would have cost less than £5bn, and returned money to the Treasury over time through myriad economic benefits, even before gas prices skyrocketed.
Yet it seemed there was no one ministers would listen to. They ignored recommendations from 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% decline in home insulation installations between 2012 and 2019. Under current plans, it will take 700 years to upgrade Britain’s homes for low-carbon heating. After a decade of inaction, we are now paying the price of remaining so dependent on gas.
Successive governments have also ignored the benefits of cheap renewable energy. It is not 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 from underneath the solar industry. In absolute terms, the cost of solar has fallen by 88% since 2010 and onshore wind has fallen 57%, despite both being intentionally frozen out of new deployment. In relative terms, the numbers are now staggering: building a new solar or windfarm is now nine times cheaper than just running an existing gas power station.
The government should be given credit for supporting the extraordinary success of offshore wind in recent years. But there was nothing to stop the rapid rollout of onshore wind and solar at the same time. Had this happened, we would have much more cheap, homegrown and clean energy available right now to ride out this storm. Had the Conservatives not “cut the green crap” over the past decade, households would now be saving an average £220 on their annual energy bills. This figure will probably rise further as gas prices do the same. Imagine what a genuine commitment to energy transition could have achieved.
Instead, false solutions won the day. Chief among these was fracking. Despite plummeting levels of public support and repeated warnings from experts that a UK fracking industry would do nothing to lower bills, fracking retained mythical status among Conservative administrations. The dogged pursuit of an industry that went nowhere has wasted precious 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 replicated a disastrous logic among Conservative ministers. The North Sea fields are in decline for a very simple reason – we’ve extracted, sold and burned most of what was there. Going after what is left will do nothing to lower gas bills because our reserves are a drop in the ocean of global gas prices. Carrying on with fracking regardless, as Liz Truss intends to do, will not lower energy bills – it will merely undermine the UK’s ability to lead on climate action.
And then there is nuclear power. Nuclear power produces carbon-free electricity, but it is very slow and relatively expensive to deliver. Hinkley Point C, the first in a supposed new generation of UK nuclear power stations, won’t 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 terrible deal for consumers. But we still have the present situation to deal with. If the political enthusiasm for Hinkley had instead been directed at cheap renewables and insulation, we would be feeling the benefits already.
There is a depressingly 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 consumption through insulation, and servicing our needs with cheap, domestic renewables running on the sun and the wind, British energy policies have sought to secure the profits of companies. These energy companies have no interest in realising a truly modern, clean and reliable energy system we could all depend on.
Borrowing £150bn just to cap energy bills at already historic levels – with most of it going to oil and gas producers – is just the start of the pain. We are ruled by a party that thinks the answer to a fossil-fuelled crisis is more fossil fuels. It is incapable of governing the basis of any economy – the energy system.
Max Wakefield is director of campaigns for the climate action group Possible