Environment

The UK’s new Department for Energy Security and Net Zero must be more than a PR exercise  

The government is required by law to achieve net zero emissions by 2050

Mike Childs

Childs is head of policy at Friends of the Earth. (Image: Friends of the Earth)

On the face of it, last week’s government announcement of a new Department for Energy Security and Net Zero was highly welcome.  

Fuelled by the cost of living crisis and mounting climate emergency, energy is now top of the political agenda and it’s critical it’s given the attention it requires.  

Friends of the Earth has long argued that soaring energy bills and the climate crisis are two sides of the same coin. Both are driven by our seemingly insatiable appetite for more gas, coal and oil, and both can be addressed with the same solutions – investment in homegrown renewables and energy efficiency.

But unless ministers recognise this — and tackle them simultaneously — the myriad problems created by our outdated energy system won’t be resolved.  

So, as Grant Shapps, the new secretary of state for energy security and net zero, takes the reins of his new department, what should his priorities be?

Friends of the Earth has four ways to make the break-up of the Department of Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy meaningful and beneficial for our planet and the money in our collective back pocket.  

Ensure  the UK’s legally binding carbon reduction targets are met – and preferably exceeded  

The government is required by law to achieve net zero emissions by 2050 – and has set a series of shorter-term, legally-binding targets to ensure this is met.  

However, in June last year the independent watchdog, the Climate Change Committee, warned that the government was failing and that current programmes won’t achieve their climate targets.  

These plans were dealt a further blow the following month when the High Court ruled – following a legal challenge by Friends of the Earth – that the government’s net zero strategy was also unlawful as it lacked adequate explanation or quantification on how it would be achieved.

Ministers now have until the end of March to publish a revised strategy.  

Achieving or exceeding net zero must be at the heart of the new department’s aims. This will not only boost energy security and cut emissions.

Green growth is the economic opportunity of the 21st century and the government should be ensuring the UK, which is hit harder by the energy crisis than our European neighbours because of our reliance on volatile global gas markets, is at the forefront of benefitting from the transition to a carbon free economy.  

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Make energy efficiency a top priority – and insulate heat-leaking homes 

The cheapest and greenest energy is the energy we don’t use. But despite this, the UK is hugely wasteful of energy – particularly its housing stock, which is among the least energy efficient in Europe.

Consequently, too many people are paying a small fortune in bills for heat that rapidly leaks out of poorly insulated roofs, walls, and windows.  

The scale of the problem is huge. There are 4.4 million homes in England and Wales that are still without cavity wall insulation and 4.8 million that lack insulated lofts, with people living on low incomes often hardest hit.  

This is why we need a nationwide government-funded home insulation programme, led by councils and focussing first on the neighbourhoods most in need. This would dramatically cut gas consumption, slash carbon emissions, create new jobs and reduce energy bills too.  

Develop the UK’s vast renewable energy potential – especially on-shore wind 

The UK has huge, untapped renewable energy resources, particularly when it comes to onshore wind. However, there has been a virtual freeze on new onshore turbines since new planning rules were introduced by the Conservative government in 2015.  

This de-facto ban looks increasingly out of touch. Onshore wind is one of the cheapest new energy sources – up to ten times cheaper than the wholesale cost of gas – as well as being popular with the public.

In December 2022, a government survey found that 79 per cent of the public supported onshore wind .

Thankfully, a government review of this absurd policy is now taking place. It must lead to onshore wind playing a central role in providing clean, affordable and homegrown renewable electricity to our homes and businesses. 

Rampion offshore wind farm in the UK producing renewable energy
Rampion offshore wind farm. The UK government recently eased the ‘ban’ on offshore wind farms. (Image: Nicholas Doherty/Unsplash)

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End our reliance on gas and oil  

Sadly, the government’s prime response to the energy crisis has been to champion new fossil fuel developments, with over 100 new licences for North Sea oil and gas exploration expected to be awarded later this year. This must change. 

We won’t achieve a switch to a zero-carbon future if we continue to feed our dependency on gas and oil by giving the green light to developments that will continue to produce fossil fuels for decades to come.  

The only beneficiaries to the government’s approach so far have been the oil and gas companies fuelling the energy crisis and making massive profits off the back of it. 

A tougher windfall tax on the bumper profits generated by fossil fuel firms is urgently needed – with the money raised invested in better insulation and green energy.

It’s obscene that these companies are raking in record-breaking profits while households up and down the country are  forced to choose between heating and eating.  

Action not PR gloss  

Ministers are right to create a new department focussed on developing homegrown energy sources and cutting emissions.

But unless the government radically changes the direction of its existing energy policy, the new Department for Energy Security and Net Zero will be little more than a PR exercise. 

Mike Childs is head of policy at Friends of the Earth, a grassroots environmental campaigning organisation.

The Big Issue’s #BigFutures campaign is calling for investment in decent and affordable housing, ending the low wage economy, and millions of green jobs. The last 10 years of austerity and cuts to public services have failed to deliver better living standards for people in this country. Sign the open letter and demand a better future. 

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