Power games - revisited

Bryony_Worthington_PictureBryony Worthington on today’s crunch votes on the Energy Bill

The Lords Report stage of the Energy Bill begins today, with the government facing a key question: are the measures contained in the bill going to be sufficient to restart investment in Britain’s energy infrastructure? 

Responding to some over-hyped claims that the lights are in imminent danger of going out, Ministers have been reassuring the public that this isn’t the case while attempting also to lay the blame for under-investment at Labour’s feet. 

Nothing could be further from the truth. 

Under the last government, 26GW of new capacity was added to the system. Since the Coalition came into office, virtually all investment has ground to a halt. They have pulled the rug out from under renewables and high gas prices have deterred investment in new plant. The Energy Bill is their best effort at trying to reverse the situation but mixed messages from different Departments and Ministers are causing confusion. The Chancellor believes low carbon concerns should play second fiddle to a new dash for gas – the high prices somehow failing to penetrate his consciousness; the Environment Secretary doesn’t believe climate change is real; and the part-time Energy Minister has dismissed climate change as a question of ‘theology’. The Prime Minister, in panic over what to do about energy prices, has reneged on his promise to be the ‘greenest government ever’ and pledged to ‘roll back’ support for cleaner technologies. 

Is it any wonder that investors want legal reassurances before they commit millions to establishing low carbon supply chain business in the UK? That is why these investors and a host of other stakeholders (over 200 organisations) have asked for a clear signal that low carbon investment will continue to be supported post-2020 by requiring that a clear carbon intensity target for electricity in 2030 be set. 

Pressure during the Commons stages led to the addition of new clauses in the Energy Bill. Ministers however, must think investors are daft, since even a cursory reading reveals these clauses don’t set a target. On the contrary, they prevent one from being set – pushing the issue back until after the election, and even then leaving it to the discretion of the Secretary of State.

It is all clearly a ruse and one that will I hope be further smoked out today. Crossbenchers Lord’s Oxburgh and Stern have tabled modest amendments to require Government to set the 2030 target next year, and to consult the Committee on Climate Change in the process. This is a long way from asking that a target be put on the face of the Bill and ought to win support across the House from those concerned about the need to tackle climate change. Labour Peers at least, will strongly back it. 

The potential to significantly reduce the carbon intensity of our electricity system is already there. The Committee on Climate Change has shown that if all the existing plant were run according to how polluting they were, with the cleanest being despatched first, we could knock around 200g/kwh off the current 530g/kwh total. And it could be done almost overnight without having to build a single new power source. Having achieved that, the progress towards 50-100g/kwh could be delivered through the deployment of the cheapest and most appropriate low carbon power throughout the 2020s. 

President Obama this year said that the Republican Party’s scaremongering about the costs of addressing climate change was based on an assumption that the nation’s industrialists, engineers and financiers would fail to find solutions. The same is true of the Conservative Party here. They just can’t conceive the possibility of a fresh wave of investment in new technology, delivering a robust, environmentally sound energy system, fit for the 21st Century. 

But where the Tories fear failure, Labour sees acting decisively now as a guarantee of success. We are the only Party taking this issue seriously, and we do not want our hands tied behind our backs by this legislation. Ministers should be ashamed at having tried to pull off a misleading sleight of hand with this Bill and today we will do all we can to win amendments to ensure Britain’s investment in a low carbon future can continue with maximum benefit for UK plc. 

Baroness Bryony Worthington is Shadow Energy and Climate Change Minister in the Lords

Published 28th October 2013. (This is an updated version of an article published before the Lords Committee stage of the Bill.)

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