Chris Skidmore MP is Chair of the Net Zero Support Group of Conservative MPs, and is MP for Kingswood.
There has been much ink spilt in the media in recent months on Net Zero and the Conservative Party. Having been the Energy Minister who signed our commitment to net zero carbon dioxide emissions into law, ensuring that the UK became the first G7 country to do so, I obviously remain committed to this flagship policy – one that Boris Johnson rightly made a key commitment of the Conservative manifesto back in 2019.
It’s welcome to see also the number of colleagues who continue to openly back Net Zero- not merely with over 130 Conservative MPs now members of the Conservative Environment Network, but also with increasingly vocal declarations of support for the ambition— including this week’s view from Mark Jenkinson that now is not the time to abandon Net Zero.
I think that any talk of ‘Tory factionalism’ on Net Zero is overdone. Mark himself has been one of those listed as a member of the so-called Net Zero Scrutiny Group – yet his article made perfectly clear the overwhelming economic benefits of Net Zero.
And in any case, proponents of the ambition, such as myself, should welcome scrutiny – as part of the democratic process, that gives us the opportunity to highlight its benefits.
For too long, a false debate has raged on the overall cost of net zero carbon emissions when we should be highlighting the massive transformation – in essence the net economic benefit that can be delivered in spades – that this Green Industrial revolution can bring to post-industrial communities across the UK, from Grimsby through to Cumbria.
The examples of investment in net zero technologies which are leading to wider inward international investments – from Nissan’s manufacturing of their new electric car fleet in Sunderland, with a £1billion battery giga-factory, to Net Zero Teeside, the UK’s first carbon neutral industrial cluster that is generating 5,500 new jobs by 2030 – show that the economic case for Net Zero as a primary tool for levelling up is undeniable.
And it’s not just the Red Wall which can benefit hugely from the economic transformation that committing to delivering a transformation towards renewable energy can bring. From the potential exploration of Lithium mining in Cornwall right to the development of a world-leading offshore wind farm north of Aberdeen, the beauty of Net Zero is that it can ensure we have locally led solutions to delivering home grown, home owned sources of energy.
The war in Ukraine and the need to move away from Russian-owned sources of energy has highlighted the perils of remaining trapped on gas and other fossil fuels. These are not merely mostly foreign-owned, bought and sold on foreign markets which the UK has no control over, but also are a finite resource, becoming ever more expensive.
To invest in attempting to unearth new sources of fossil fuels, with the risk that not only this places on our environment and climate, as well as developing stranded assets for the future, would be a fossil fool’s errand. We have the chance now to plan for an energy security strategy for the future, but this should be one which invests in renewables and other sources of clean energy, such as nuclear.
That’s one of the reasons why I decided to set up the Net Zero Support Group of Conservative MPs, in order to highlight the opportunities that Net Zero presents. It simply isn’t a cost, but a transformation that we should be committing to, not merely to protect against climate change, but to protect our nation for the future against future energy crises, by developing sovereign and secure forms of energy.
And the more we commit to renewables, so the cost of these has plummeted – the so-called ‘learning curve’ has now left wind and solar power at historic low prices, so much so that offshore wind is now paying back on to the grid: £770 million last year, with some projecting a return of over £10 billion a year by 2030.
As renewables become self-financing, we need to seek to create future incentives, establishing a ‘renewables bonus’ for consumers. And rather than continue with bill payers financing ‘green levies’, which importantly are making up less than eight per cent of energy bills- not 25 per cent as is sometimes incorrectly stated – we should look to see how oil and gas companies could be investing in paying off these levies as part of their own Net Zero commitments.
It is clear also that we need future policy innovation if we are to secure the support of local communities to have wind power, or indeed nuclear power, close to their doors. Turning NIMBYS into YIMBYS should be a priority for a party that has always sought to expand ownership: how we ensure that local communities can feel empowered that they own their community energy resources – perhaps with local households close to wind power or nuclear receiving free electricity – must clearly be considered for the future.
Then there is the important question of energy efficiency. Too much of our present debate has focused on the supply of our energy, without recognising that we need to address the demand side. We should recognise that the cheapest form of energy is the energy that you never use, thanks to better insulation and more efficient heating supplies.
Yet for decades, the UK’s insulation and energy efficiency improvement measures have fallen short of other countries; as a result many of our homes remain cold, with soaring gas heating bills paying for heat that simply escapes. With the right measures in place, a renewed mission to ‘insulate Britain’ would leave UK households both richer and warmer.
Today we face a cost of energy crisis that is in essence a cost of gas crisis. It is the rising cost of gas – now at ten times the price it was a year ago – that is driving increased bills. To continue our dependence on foreign-owned gas and being at the whim of international markets for fossil fuels is not a sustainable strategy for the future. Net Zero and renewable energy are now part of the solution, and not part of the problem.
Rather than seek false division, whether one wishes to support or scrutinise Net Zero, we can all as Conservatives find common ground on which to build a consensus on the future security of our energy supply.