Over the past few years, the UK has begun to position itself as a willing candidate of environmental leadership, noting in its Net Zero Strategy plans to make Britain the birthplace of the Green Industrial Revolution. The Net Zero Strategy: Build Back Greener is an exemplary and much needed strategy to solve the growing climate crisis. A few policy examples in the Strategy include: fully decarbonise the UK power system by 2035; provide funding for hydrogen and carbon capture technology; as well as increasing funding for nature preservation through the Nature for Climate Fund (£750 million in spending by 2025). If successful, they can help us hit below, at the very least, the 1.5°C threshold. According to Climate Action Tracker, the UK is labelled “Almost Sufficient”, meaning that “the UK’s climate policies and action in 2030 are not yet consistent with the Paris Agreement’s 1.5°C temperature limit but could be, with moderate improvements.” Their analysis of the Net Zero Strategy revealed a total emissions reduction of “54-56% below 1990 levels by 2030”, which “is well below its 2030 NDC of at least a 68% reduction below 1990 levels.”
A critical element to meeting these goals will be via finance and investment into the UK energy transition. The transition, which is more or less a mass technological transition, involves investment into green energy and technology such as solar panels, wind farms, nuclear energy, hydrogen, natural gas as well as long-term energy storage. However, while the Net Zero Strategy is both desirable and impressive, the results appear lacking in certain areas. In 2010 the UK government approved plans for eight new nuclear reactors, yet the Hinkley Point C nuclear reactor has been the only reactor built over the course of a decade. Additionally, the drive for nuclear energy underlines the cost-of-living crisis, which reveals another rising issue, one in which a select minority of Tory figures hope to use in their bid to stand against the green transition. In evaluating UK environment and energy policy and the current trajectory towards UK environmental goals, the current UK administration must broaden its ambitious goals and re-strategize its policies if it hopes to hit its 2030 NDC of 68% in emissions reduction.
Throughout the course of 2021, the negative effects of Brexit and Covid-19 were wide-ranging. From the mental health impacts on individuals during national lockdowns to the labour shortages delivering an increase in cost of food. While there is no doubt that the consequences of Covid-19 and Brexit are wide ranging, one of the very few which is positive is the increasing need to accelerate the green energy transition. This acceleration will require not only mass investment from the public and private sectors, but also improved strategizing in UK energy and environmental policies. Additionally, it will need to re-evaluate the sources of energy it transitions into, with natural gas being one of the more controversial transition energies currently being discussed.
The current UK government has placed a great deal of emphasis on their investment efforts in offshore windfarms and nuclear energy. Through these efforts of adopting more renewable energies, we have seen reduced coal-usage to less than 3% as of last year. Yet, in September 2021, as energy demands rose, the UK saw a soon to be decommissioned coal power plant turned back on to stabilise the energy grid due to wind farms generating less-than-optimal energy. While the government has ensured coal will be phased out, the need for an equally reliable and powerful (yet clean) energy source is critical to avoid future energy crises. Two of these “clean” energy sources of interest are nuclear energy and natural gas, both being rather controversial.
Recently, Rolls Royce has placed its bets on nuclear, creating small nuclear power plants, or “small modular reactors” (SMRs). Following their obtaining of a £195 million private investment, the UK government approved another £210 million, and it is said that they will place the first round of SMRs in the early 2030s. Investments in these types of energies are massively beneficial in the long-term as reliance on carbon emitting energy resources must dramatically decrease by 2030. The key policy in the Net Zero Strategy in relation to nuclear energy is as follows:
“Secure a final investment decision on a large-scale nuclear plant by the end of this Parliament [May 2024], and launch a new £120 million Future Nuclear Enabling Fund, retaining options for future nuclear technologies, including Small Modular Reactors, with a number of potential sites including Wylfa in North Whales.”
At the end of 2021, the UK government had £265 million in green subsidies to drive innovation in the renewable energy sector – of which £55 million will be provided for “emerging renewable technologies such as tidal power”. The strategy of the UK government, in this regard, is the pathway forward. Emerging technologies must be supported by the UK government – whether that is through subsidies or expanding upon the current policies for more advanced technologies such as wind and solar – so we may see wide spread adoption of green technology. However, the situation demands for solutions within a shorter timeframe, and given that widespread support from nuclear energy is to arrive much later, it is important to realize more immediate replacements.
Due to past nuclear projects such as Hinkley proving to be over-deadline and over budget, in addition to the fact that all but one of the UK nuclear power plants will be offline by 2030, reliance of nuclear will be temporarily placed on hold. In saying this, it would be beneficial to add additional long-term plans for nuclear, incentivising businesses to focus on nuclear technology but on a smaller scale as Rollys Royce has done with its SMRs.
Natural gas is the follow-up contender to serve as a transition fuel. It’s cleaner than coal, it’s cheap, and can bring stability to the national energy grid. The International Energy Agency (IEA) reported in 2019 that while gas is not one to be completely relied upon, it is an energy that has one of the lowest amounts of energy-related emissions, with its highest impact being at 21% in CO2 emissions, with coal (44%) and oil (35%) taking up lion’s share. The overall argument here is that gas remains the least evil out of all other energy emitters. Yet, according to others, it is perhaps better to refer to natural gas as “a fuel of last resort”. In this sense, it can be understood that gas cannot act as a replacement for coal. Even though the harm is lower than others, it does not mean natural gas should be accepted with open arms. One suggestion would be for the UK government to diverge more of their funds into their policy budgets surrounding renewable energy storage and carbon capture technology.
Of course, environmental policies are more effective when used in combination with policies focusing on the creation of a sustainable infrastructure, in turn leading to “human flourishing”. The UK government’s Build Back Better policy framework emphasizes how “infrastructure investment is fundamental to delivering net zero emissions by 2050.” Additionally, while public funds are important, we are also seeing recent advances in removing the “red tape” for the insurance industry. In ABI’s Climate Roadmap, they reveal how through the restructuring of Solvency II “could unlock £60bn (20%) of the total funds already held in Matching Adjustment portfolios (c£300bn) to be re-invested in productive long-term assets to help with economic recovery and the green transition.” This highlights the need for both the private and public to invest into the green transition in order to have an accelerated transition before hitting the 2030 and 2050 deadlines.
The Public Voice
The energy resources we use remain at the core of solving climate change, yet the involvement of the public is just as equally valuable. The Tory group Net Zero Scrutiny Group which stands against the green transition, notably in their efforts of attempting to link the cost-of-living crisis to the energy transition, are a small minority and are no more than a nuisance. However, what must become more realized is the need to take into consideration the smaller groups and minorities and how they see the green transition. Recently, the Guardian published a letter written by eight all-party parliamentary groups, which stated: “There are different approaches to reach net zero, but we all support the goal.” If that is the case, it is critical the UK government ensures the voice of the public is heard.
In a recent report by IPPR, Net Zero Places: A Community-Powered Response to the Climate Change Crisis, the focus remained on the cultural aspects when (re)developing communal areas into something more environmentally sustainable. Additionally, the problems highlighted in the report include the publics access to resources to ensure participation in either development projects or the policies themselves, as well as many communities often getting left behind.
A common problem in any country is society’s ability to understand the information that will directly affect them or their community. When broad and far-reaching policies such as the UK’s plans to achieve net zero are implemented, most people do not realize how it is going to impact them. Thus, it is important for not only the UK government, but other non-governmental organizations, think tanks, and environmental groups to make clear how policies will be affecting specific demographics and/or communities throughout the UK. For example, to explain what the targets and policies of Net Zero are and what it means for to the community. By increasing transparency, it will lead to improved participation as well as public advocacy which can in turn push for improved ambition in meeting net zero goals as well as resolving specific issue areas which are in the interests of varying communities.
Pathways for the UK
The pathway to Net Zero is not an easy one. It has taken a great deal over the past few decades for governments to get to where we are now, with many still off track to hit the 2050 target. Solutions which can help boost our position are wide ranging, however, by strategically balancing investments between different types of energy resources as well as investing in carbon capture technology and boosting peoples ability to participate in the green transition plans, its possible to increase our chances.
The UK Government must prioritize the majority of financing into investments relating towards energy resources which have low-carbon emissions (electric vehicles, natural gas) while simultaneously focusing (but to a lesser extent) on green energy technologies which can immediately deliver zero carbon emissions (nuclear energy). They must also continue to support mature technologies such as wind and solar alongside renewable energy storage technology so we may see them as more reliable sources of energy in throughout the year.
Alongside the green transition, a focus should be placed on improving the engagement of the people to better serve the policies at both the regional and national level. Through the increase of transparency as to how the policies will impact specific communities, in addition to providing the necessary resources for participation, this can only lead to better policy making and implementation.
Achieving Net Zero is complex and several countries still remain off-track in meeting the required targets to avoid breaching the 1.5°C threshold. Governments ranging from the USA and Canada to the UAE and Europe are currently on track for hitting over the 3°C threshold. If the UK government is successful in its Net Zero Strategy, we cannot wait to see it take place. More countries must adopt similar strategies in order to avoid a point of no return.