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Britain: Towards Net Zero

At the United Nations (UN) General Assembly’s climate roundtable on Monday, Boris Johnson, the Prime Minister, declared that ‘in the years to come, the only great powers will be green powers’. This is certain to be true. While it remains counterintuitive to some, getting to Net Zero emissions is based on progression rather than regression. Upgrading the United Kingdom’s (UK) critical national infrastructure, most of all its energy system, to become greener is how Britain will become more secure and prosperous.

Polling shows the environment is a uniting issue – a ‘Top 3’ priority for the British public along with the economy and healthcare. Reaching Net Zero emissions – i.e., ending the UK’s contribution to climate change – requires a massive upgrade to Britain’s critical infrastructure, which the whole country must play a part in. It is a challenge which will reach every home in the UK, but one that offers opportunities for a greater standard of living through superior technologies: from electric vehicles with their associated reduction in noise and air pollution to more efficient heat pumps and household appliances.

The decarbonisation of the British economy is far too large a subject to cover in one piece, but there runs a common theme throughout: technological innovation. Take wind power, which was first harnessed and turned into electricity by the Scottish electrical engineer James Blyth in 1887. Offshore wind turbines have evolved from 54 metre high minnows, powering 200 homes from the field next door, to twice the height of the London Eye at 260 meters (853 feet), powering 15,000 homes from the middle of the North Sea.

Renewable energy, including wind turbines, operates at zero marginal cost, which is why it now offers the cheapest electricity available. This week in particular has demonstrated the stark contrast between renewables and gas. Gas has risen 250% in price due to a cold snap in Asia, delays at the Panama Canal, and Russia reportedly purposefully restricting gas flows into Europe via Ukraine. A period of low renewable electricity generation has not helped, but gas volatility is fundamentally responsible for hitting British industry and households.

Small wonder Kwasi Kwarteng, the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, reiterated Her Majesty’s (HM) Government’s long-term plan to to build a strong, home-grown renewable energy sector to further reduce the UK’s reliance on fossil fuels, the marginal supply of which is – by its global nature – volatile in price. Renewable energy is simply the next step to which the whole world is upgrading for its energy supply. The International Energy Agency has predicted the record investment in renewable energy capacity seen during 2020, despite the pandemic, is becoming the new normal.

HM Government should double down on its plan for a Net Zero energy system through a new 2050 strategy for offshore wind. It would include policies to allow more anticipatory investment in the offshore transmission network and a timetable for auctions and Crown Estate leasing rounds. Particular attention should be paid to floating offshore wind, which will be able to access the deeper, windier parts of the North and Celtic seas and represents a future export opportunity for the UK’s industrial heartlands the country should seek to capture. 

The current energy price crunch will likely necessitate a review of gas storage capacity and business continuity plans. However, the power system needs new nuclear plants, new interconnectors with Norway, pumped hydro in Scotland, and further progress on battery storage (where Britain is fast becoming a European leader).  Together, these will provide sufficient power to support cheaper but variable renewables.

Here, Net Zero encourages also clean trade and cooperation with UK allies and partners. Working with the French state-owned company EDF to enable life extensions for existing plants and investment in Sizewell C would not only provide firm, zero-carbon power, but may also have a diplomatic bonus of soothing a key European ally’s anger over the establishment of AUKUS.
The shift to a Net Zero energy system will reduce Britain’s exposure to volatile fossil fuel prices, strengthen its security of supply, and bring investment and jobs across the UK. It would also increase trade with friends while reducing dependence on rivals. It is a textbook example of how becoming greener will provide the UK a stronger national base from which to stand on the world stage.

Jack Richardson is James Blyth Early Career Associate Fellow at the Council on Geostrategy. He is also Climate Programmes Manager at the Conservative Environment Network.

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