Anthony Browne is MP for South Cambridgeshire, and chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on the Environment.
Does the invasion of Ukraine – and the commodities price crisis that it has exacerbated – mean we should “press pause” on Net Zero? Gas and petrol prices have rocketed up in the past few weeks, increasing the cost of heating and driving, and causing real financial pain to households, particularly those on lower incomes. The Government has unleashed a £9 billion package to bring bills down, but there is a limit to how much it can buck global markets. The call has come for further action – in particular, to start fracking in the UK again.
I fundamentally disagree that Net Zero needs to be paused. Many of the arguments put forward are not just self-serving, but patently irrational. If they were acted upon, we would be repeating rather than learning from the mistakes of the 1973 oil price shock.
I have always seen three major reasons for aiming for net zero – one is to curb climate change, and the other two are to enhance national security and to improve economic resilience.
Weaning ourselves off fossil fuels – which is completely achievable – is not only critically important for the environment, but would mean that we would no longer be funding and dependent on some of world’s worst authoritarian regimes, and the change would make our economy more resilient against volatility in global energy prices.
In 1973, a six day war in the Middle East produced an oil price shock that unleashed explosive inflation and a deeply scarring recession, sending our economy into turmoil for nearly 20 years. That is a critical weakness on an otherwise powerful, diverse economy.
Our economy is less dependent on oil prices now than it was – the energy intensity of GDP has fallen – but we are still vulnerable, as we are experiencing.
After 1973, other countries had deliberate strategies to wean themselves off oil – France went for nuclear power, Denmark for wind power, and Japan for solar. By contrast, we went for North Sea 0il. But since our output is part of global markets, that did nothing to insulate us from global price shocks.
We have more recently boosted renewable energy. Few people realise that more of the UK’s national electricity supply is now produced from wind power than it is from gas. No foreign dictator can stop the wind from blowing on these shores. The fact that over half our electricity comes from zero carbon sources (wind, solar and nuclear) means that its price has been less volatile than if it was produced solely from oil and gas, whose prices are decided by highly volatile international markets.
France, where nuclear power generates three quarters of electricity, and Norway, which is 100 per cent hydroelectric, have suffered from electricity price spikes, but only because they have been exporting power other countries which are vulnerable.
North Norway, which is isolated from the main European power networks, has seen more stable electricity prices from its hydroelectric plants. Two thirds of Norway’s homes are warmed by electric heat pumps, and so are not directly affected by global gas prices.
The UK could produce more fossil fuels, but the UK cannot much influence international oil and gas prices, whether it fracks or not. For as long as our heat and light and transport depend on fossil fuels, we will still be at the whim of international markets.
But imagine if all our (and Europe’s) electricity production were from zero carbon sources – renewables and nuclear – and if we drove electric vehicles, and had electric heating for homes, then homeowners and drivers would be more insulated from international energy price movements and no longer funding foreign dictators.
The answer to the current crisis is more people driving electric cars, and less electricity produced from fossil fuels – not pressing pause on Net Zero, producing more fossil fuels and doing less to get people to drive electric cars and heat their homes with electricity.
That would simply exacerbate the problem, not solve it. You won’t make the UK less hostage to global fossil fuel prices by making the UK more dependent on fossil fuels. We need to learn from 1973, not repeat the mistakes.
As we get to Net Zero by 2050, there will still be a continued demand for oil and gas as transition fuels, and there will be some residual demand afterwards for industries such as chemicals.
Where that fuel comes from is less an environmental issue than a security one. Since Russia only supplies four per cent of our gas, it is not really an issue for the UK: giving the go-ahead to the wind farms and solar farms already in the pipeline will more than make up for the shortfall from Russia.
The energy gap is more an issue for the EU, which is heavily dependent on Russian oil and gas. If Europe stops buying fossilsfuels from Russia, it will have to buy them from elsewhere, but that does not in any way mean it needs to stop aiming for Net Zero.
The Russian invasion in Ukraine is not a reason to give up on Net Zero. Rather, it is a reason to redouble efforts to get there as quickly as possible. That will benefit the environment, economic resilience and national security.