The politics of energy, UK-style

In the runup to the UK‘s generalà‚ election in May, Conservative MP Matthew Hancock (pictured), minister of state for energy, business and enterprise, laid out his party’s “vision for a prosperous future in which we tackle the risks posed by climate change” in a speech at London’s Policy Exchange thinktank.

In Hancock’s view, prosperity and carbon reduction should be equally weighted in policy planning. “It would be a grave mistake,” he said, “to cordon off carbon reduction from the broader economic debate about how to become a more prosperous world”, adding that “successful carbon reduction must have cost-effectiveness at its heart” and that “the market is the best tool we have for driving down costs and making carbon reduction viable”. à‚ 

He spoke against the imposition of CO2 reduction targets, noting that “intermediate targets can often discourage the most cost-effective way of reducing carbon”. He added that he was encouraged to see that, in the EU’s 2030 climate framework, “there was not an individual country renewable energy target”, and noted that his government had taken measures ” such as last year’s energy-intensive industries budget package ” to avoid “los[ing] activities to other places in the world where regulations and constraints were lower”.

Asked if the UK should have a power sector decarbonization target, Hancock said the “language around that is around grams of CO2 per kWh ” this misses point of energy efficiency. The ultimate goal is we reduce our greenhouse gas emissions, and there are lots of different ways to do that, but we need to do it in the most cost-effective way possible. Energy efficiency reduces greenhouse gases and costs at the same time.”

However, when accused by the Association for the Conservation of Energy‘s Jenny Holland of making “only a glancing reference” to energy efficiency in his speech (Holland also said her group had seen “an incredible dip” in energy efficiency installations under the current government), Hancock said that, in effect, market conditions had done the work without government’s help. “It’s very important to draw a distinction between what is subsidized and what happens,” he said. “High energy prices incentivize people to take energy efficiency measures. We’ve made a huge amount of progress over the last five years on energy efficiency.

“It’s very important to concentrate on the outcome we’re looking for and have the most efficient and effective way of getting there, rather than become ideological about one particular policy,” he added.

On carbon capture and storage, Hancock said, “I support it as long as it works and is commercially viable. I don’t have favourite technology; if it doesn’t work I’ll stop supporting it. What I do support is the work we’ve put government and taxpayer money into to find out if [CCS] works.” He added that he “hope[s] we get to commercial deployment in the next Parliament”.

Energy politics

Referencing the upcoming election, a journalist in the audience asked “Why should we vote for you in terms of energy?” Hancock replied that the Green movement, which “seeks to conscript environmental protection into a broader anti-capitalist narrative ࢀ¦ could not be more wrong.” The Green Party’s “socialism is a way to a dirtier country and a dirtier system,” he said, adding that Labour’s proposal to freeze consumer energy prices was “absolutely bonkers” and “all of the other parties represent chaos”. However, he praised current energy secretary Ed Davey, a Liberal Democrat, saying he could “only say nice things about him”. Davey is “at the reasonable end of his own party”, he added, due to his strong support of nuclear power.

Only the Conservative party, he concluded, offers “a combination of optimism and realism” on the nation’s energy future.

The politics of wind

Onshore wind is a contentious issue in the UK ” the world’s offshore wind leader ” with many in Hancock’s party opposed to further onshore development.à‚ When asked by Guy Newey of utility Ovo Energy “Why do so many Tories hate onshore wind?”, Hancock replied: “We have to tackle our international climate obligations whilst also protecting our very beautiful country. It’s entirely understandable that [local] people want a say [in planning decisions]. I’m a very strong supporter of local decision-making on local planning.”

He pointed to his own support for opposition to a proposed wind project is his constituency, given its potential effects on the landscape: “This is in [19th-century British landscape painter John] Constable country where, 200 years ago, they were painting paintings of it,” he said.

However, when a journalist followed with a question about places in the UK where the community has been in favour of hosting a wind farm, yet it was “still rejected” at the national level, Hancock answered, “Where there’s a national consideration, that has to be taken into account as well”.

A representative of trade body RenewableUK followed by asking whether, “if onshore wind is able to get local consent and compete with other forms [of power generation] in auction, should it be able to continue?”à‚  Hancock replied bluntly that “onshore wind will not be subsidized in a Conservative government.”

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