The Guardian view on Boris Johnson’s energy strategy: missed opportunities

A few weeks after the November Cop26 summit concluded in Glasgow, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy published a striking snapshot of public attitudes towards the climate emergency. It showed that popular support for renewable energy, including onshore wind farms, had reached record levels. Given a cost-of-living crunch caused by the rocketing price of fossil fuels, and the new priority of energy independence following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, an imaginative and proactive government would move to harness this enthusiasm and seize the moment. Sadly, Britain is not blessed with such a government.

The future energy strategy unveiled by Boris Johnson on Thursday instead carries some of the hallmarks of his flawed government: a prime ministerial penchant for grands projets that may or may not be deliverable; a tendency to be unduly influenced by vocal lobby groups on the right of the Conservative party; and a propensity to set targets without doing the necessary work to enable them to be met. The aspiration that 95% of the UK’s electricity should come from renewable sources by 2030 is admirable, and the commitment to hugely increase offshore wind and solar capacity is significant. But inexplicable lacunae and wrong priorities make this a tale of missed opportunities.

The government has placed nuclear power at the heart of its approach, promising that as many as eight new reactors will be built. The realpolitik of meeting net zero targets means that nuclear, as a least worst option, should be part of the future energy mix. But the scale of Mr Johnson’s ambition represents a hugely expensive long-term gamble, the funding of which is conveniently buried somewhere in the long grass. According to the government’s own calculations, the journey from initial investment in a plant to the generation of electricity takes up to 17 years.

Meanwhile, far faster routes to fulfilling net zero obligations and driving down spiralling fuel bills have been rejected or ignored. Four out of five members of the public support the use of onshore wind farms, which could be built quickly and cheaply if planning rules were eased. This was rumoured to be on the cards. But Mr Johnson has instead bowed to the nimby instincts of Tory MPs and ministers, whose views are at odds with the mood of the country, but who have the power to make life difficult in parliament. Limited consultations with some “supportive” communities will have next to no impact and a game-changing possibility has been lost.

A golden chance to fund greater energy efficiency and better insulation in Britain’s leaky housing stock has also been missed, despite the relief this would afford the less well-off in particular. The Treasury’s apparent refusal to fund the expansion of an existing scheme to help poorer households is particularly callous, given the eye-watering bills that will drop on doormats next winter. But it is also emblematic of an administration that consistently fails to grasp the bigger picture. Promoting demand-side energy efficiency is fundamental in the drive to net zero, but the government must make the transition to green energy attractive, feasible and affordable if people are to take the plunge in their own homes.

The public knows that radical action is needed to cope with long-term and short-term energy crises. This flawed strategy for the future demonstrates that the government has yet to find the courage to rise to the challenge.

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