Since the 2017 election, the Conservatives have been attempting to establish their green credentials. Michael Gove has been rebranded as the eco-warrior of the Conservative Party and Theresa May has promised to build a cleaner, greener Britain. This could be in part to try and win back younger voters who have deserted the party in swathes, for whom climate change and sustainability are key issues, or simply to bring Britain on a par with other OCED and EU countries.


They have already implemented a plastic bag charge, and have just pledged to ban the sale of plastic straws, cotton buds, and plastic microbeads following upcoming consultations. More crucially, on the issue of climate change they have raised the stakes from the congestion charge for high polluting vehicles by banning the sale and production of all petrol and diesel cars by 2040. This follows in the footsteps of many European countries, including France, Germany, Greece, and Spain.

The policy is two-pronged; on the one hand, it is focused on reducing pollution in inner cities and improving air quality, whilst at the same time attempting to supercharge (pardon the pun) the jump to a more electrified transport sector. The government believes that air pollution poses the largest environmental risk to public health in the UK, costing up to £2.7bn in lost productivity in one recent year. Furthermore, our reliance upon oil to fuel our economy puts us at the mercy of the volatile oil markets and sees the UK lagging behind much of the developed world in the transition to a post-carbon economy.

So whilst this move is welcome, alone it is not enough. By electrifying cars without simultaneously ramping up renewable energy production, the carbon footprint is simply being shifted from the car to the power plants and the factories. Imagine making a law that outlawed sugar in drinks to improve public health and reduce our reliance on imported sugar, so that now drinks companies simply sold packets of sugar separately to be added after purchase, or kids started getting sugar from other foods. All you would be doing is shifting the burden rather than fixing the problem. Sure you would have reduced the amount of sugar in drinks, but it wouldn’t have reduced actual sugar consumption in any meaningful way.

To truly effect change, the UK must prepare to decarbonise the entire economy. Matthew Wright, managing director of Dong Energy UK, commented that whilst electric cars would reduce air pollution, it would be a ‘Pyrrhic victory‘ if they subsequently increased greenhouse gases from coal and gas power stations. In other words, the grid has to be green as well, and this is where the current administration is failing.

Electric cars not enough as UK struggles in the renewable energy race

According to a recent government report, almost a third of the country’s electricity (29 per cent) during the second quarter (Q2) of 2017 came from renewable energy, up 4.4 percentage points on the share in 2016 Q2. This increase was due to increased wind capacity, wind speeds, and lower overall electricity generation. However, it is crucial to note that this number doesn’t account for the transport sector, only electricity production.

The EU-wide target to hit 20 per cent renewable energy by 2020 will be met by the entire 28-country bloc, but the UK currently lags far behind much of the EU in renewable energy production. Sweden leads the way in renewable consumption and was already approaching 40 per cent renewable power back in 2004.

In 2016, the Energy and Climate Change Committee warned that the UK is three-quarters of the way towards its 30 per cent electricity sub-target and is expected to exceed it by 2020, but it is not yet halfway towards 12 per cent in heat and the proportion of renewable energy used in transport actually fell last year.

Yet despite the need for investment in renewable energy, the Conservatives recently sold off the Green Investment Bank to an international consortium led by a bank with a history of stripping UK public assets. They quietly reduced the solar subsidies in 2015 leading to a 74 per cent drop-off in solar installations and at the start of 2018, following a year of record onshore wind installations being built, the government has scrapped subsidies for onshore wind farms at the behest of David Cameron’s 2015 manifesto. There has even been talk of scrapping these targets altogether post-Brexit, although it remains to be seen whether that will actually happen.

There is no doubt that this policy will help to reduce inner-city air pollution, but it does precious little to help Britain transition to the post-carbon world. The current measures proposed by the UK Government are essentially meaningless without creating a sustainable energy grid to accompany the shift towards electric cars.

 

By Josh Hamilton

Editor at www.thejist.co.uk