If action is not taken now, the next government will have to explain why it let Britain's lights go out
The very idea that an advanced economy such as ours faces an energy crisis within the next few years should attract the most urgent attention of our political leaders. Yet we appear to be drifting into a situation of great seriousness because they are all wedded to unrealistic decarbonisation targets that none seems willing to revisit.
As Owen Paterson, the former environment secretary, is going to say in a speech this week, the country will “struggle to keep the lights on” unless something is done soon.
Much of the current problem stems from mistakes made by the last government. Labour effectively scrapped the UK civil nuclear programme until, far too late in the day, it tried to revive it as part of this country’s commitment to lower CO2 emissions.
But much of the momentum and technical expertise had been lost; and although the EU gave the go ahead last week for the first of a new generation of heavily subsidised nuclear power plants at Hinkley Point, it will not be ready for years.
In the meantime, the 2008 Climate Change Act, which all the major parties supported, tied Britain into the most stringent targets in the world for the reduction of fossil fuels and the expansion of renewables, such as wind farms. This was motivated more by a desire to demonstrate “green” credentials than by any rational approach to the energy requirements of a major industrial nation.
It means that we are closing down coal-fired power stations just as the fuel is at its cheapest because of a glut on the world market from shale-rich America. Germany, meanwhile, is actually opening new coal plants and burning more fossil fuels because it has turned its back on the nuclear option. How does it make sense to risk British energy security so that the Germans, who are heavily reliant upon Russian gas in any case, can burn more coal? Moreover, the cost of oil has also been falling, which should provide the opportunity for cheaper energy – were we not in thrall to Labour’s ill-considered legislation.
This is not to argue that the UK should play no part in reducing fossil fuel consumption or significantly improving energy efficiency. But this must be done in a more sensible and coherent way than through the pursuit of an arbitrary, unattainable and ultimately self-defeating targets.
Mr Paterson has begun a debate that cannot be shut down simply because it raises some difficult political questions. If this is not gripped now, then the next government, of whatever stripe, will need to explain to the country why they could have prevented the lights going out, but didn’t.