Sanjoy Sen is a chemical engineer. He contested Alyn & Deeside at the 2019 general election.
We engineers prefer to keep things simple. I’ve enjoyed working in a wide range of industries, from the traditional (such as steel and petro-chemicals) to the modern (including in renewables and clean transport). And I believe all of those sectors will evolve and continue to play vital roles in our society and economy. It’s not an either-or choice between old and new.
But things are always more complex with politicians: witness the deepening schism between the Conservative Environment Network true believers and the Net Zero Scrutiny Group outsiders.
Net Zero is fast becoming a highly polarised issue with little room for nuanced debate. That is especially the case for those of us who are positive about new technology opportunities but want to ensure that plans and costs stay realistic. Whilst internal differences can be played down for now, as rising bills start to bite and the next general election looms, positions are likely to harden. Before picking a side, we should reflect on some of the implications of Net Zero.
Does Net Zero empower or hinder Putin?
Since the Ukraine crisis began, Net Zero has been widely touted as the answer to tyranny: an autocrat can turn off your gas supply but he can’t stop the wind blowing or the sun shining. Unfortunately, the reality is more complicated. The penny is finally dropping in the USA that swapping Arabian crude for Chinese battery lithium just creates a new form of energy insecurity. Meanwhile, Germany has long embraced green growth – yet now finds that solar and wind aren’t enough, and that it is terrifyingly dependent on Russian gas.
Here in the UK, establishing gas pipelines from a much friendlier neighbour (Norway) and constructing liquefied import terminals to access global supplies have served us better. Closing down our gas storage was perhaps less wise. But whilst Germany remains ideologically anti-nuclear (despite it being its best route for reaching Net Zero), Hinkley Point C is slowly taking shape with more to follow via the new Energy Security Strategy. But perhaps the biggest lesson from Germany is in the speed of transition: we need to prioritise establishing our new power generators before taking old stuff off-line if we are to avoid being left exposed.
Is Net Zero important to (Conservative) voters?
It’s perhaps telling that the Energy Security Strategy makes relatively little mention of Net Zero. It’s possible that come the next election, after months of soaring energy costs, relatively few voters will genuinely have green issues as their top priority, especially if going green means being willing to accept major associated financial and lifestyle implications. Moreover, the minority that do are most likely not Conservatives, let alone Conservatives in swing seats. And, poised to help focus minds on where our core vote exists, once again looms Nigel Farage. His Net Zero referendum idea could gain traction in the no-nonsense Red Wall.
Going into the next election, selling Net Zero on emissions reductions alone is unlikely to cut it. Many voters do reflect on their personal carbon footprint (and adjust certain lifestyle choices accordingly). But most know that China emits substantially more and thus have a keen sense of their relative impact. To succeed, Net Zero is best re-framed in terms of more tangible gains. It’s a positive sign that we are starting to see these in two crucial areas: jobs and transport.
Can Net Zero ever be a vote winner?
New employment opportunities will be key to Net Zero acceptance. EDF reckons some 22,000 are now at work on Hinkley Point C. Expect similarly impressive numbers if other large-scale nuclear projects (most likely Sizewell C and Wylfa) are signed off on the back of the current crisis. Although further off, the government is also finally backing small modular reactors: Rolls-Royce envision 40,000 regional jobs and £250 billion in export potential. Meanwhile, Red Wall industrial clusters Humberside and Teesside look set to be re-invented around hydrogen.
Net Zero is also (fairly or unfairly) perceived as an excuse to punish motorists. The government’s recent £7 billion announcement goes beyond merely swapping diesel buses for zero-emission (electric or hydrogen) alternatives. By also making bus usage easier via some long overdue and obvious measures (clearer fares, integrated networks, infrastructure upgrades) motorists outside London should begin to see some realistic alternatives to driving. Meanwhile, as technology improves and prices fall, drivers are increasingly going electric by choice, not coercion (or even wokeness). So far in 2022, 15% of new car sales have been electric. The Government can encourage further take-up by maintaining purchase plug-in grants and lower tax rates for company cars.
And should we give in to those protestors?
The Putin-induced rush to increase domestic energy supply first has to get past some pretty determined opponents. How significant are these? Fracking potential remains something of an unknown for now (as exploration was pretty swiftly curtailed). Moreover, whilst onshore wind can play a useful role, it is perhaps not as pivotal as proponents claim. Instead, the Energy Security Strategy backs further North Sea gas investment; this can deliver more domestic production in the short term. But let’s be aware that future output is never going to get anywhere near the millennium peak.
The Energy Security Strategy is very much focused on increasing supply, not tackling demand. But as every engineer knows, the heat losses from uninsulated pipes and structures can be eye-watering. UK buildings often perform far worse thermally than those in Europe. Improving our building stock could well prove a quick and cost-effective means of reducing utility bills and import dependence. Polling suggests little public sympathy for protestors and their glue-based antics – but whilst we might not be too impressed with Insulate Britain, we should not lose focus on how vital it is to insulate Britain.