The devil’s in the detail as Tories and Labour outline low-carbon strategies

Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) Secretary Greg Clark addressed the Conservative Party Conference on Monday (4 October) with a promise to "upgrade" the UK's clean energy system, but a distinct lack of specific green policy pledges contrasted with the raft of legislation proposals made at last week's corresponding Labour Party Conference.

Delivering a speech to party members in Birmingham, Clark insisted that a convergence of climate change issues and low-carbon technologies would play a critical role in the UK’s new industrial strategy.

“Our global leadership in combatting climate change, which we will maintain and take forward, presents us with a massive opportunity to enjoy industrial success,” he said.

Clark suggested that the UK will need to ramp up efforts to shift towards a low-carbon economy, stressing in no uncertain terms a necessity for the country to “upgrade in the resilience and cleanness of energy supplies”.

“We have low-carbon energy systems that lead the world, but also the failure of successive Governments to replace our aging power stations,” he added.

While references to climate change issues and low-carbon infrastructure will be regarded by the green economy as a welcome inclusion in the BEIS secretary’s speech, many will feel disappointed that Clark’s bold rhetoric was not supported by any tangible policy commitments.

Renewable energy investor Rockfire Capital’s chief executive Liam Kavanagh expressed his concern, saying: “The Business, Energy and Industry Secretary’s speech was a sweeping glorification of innovation and industrial strategy but woefully short of specific policy. Apart from a nod to the recent ratification of the Paris Agreement on Climate Change and a mention of an “upgrade in clean energy supplies”, no mention was made of energy policy whatsoever. 

“How are we supposed to ensure that our infrastructure and cities are fit for the future if we don’t have more explicit support for innovative energy developments such as storage, interconnection and of course generation from renewable sources?”

Great Repeal Act

Clark was later followed on stage by Defra Secretary Andrea Leadsom, who presented the UK’s departure from the European Union (EU) as an opportunity to put the environment “at the heart of everything we do”. Again, Leadsom provided words of encouragement for the green economy, stating that the current generation has a chance to “leave our environment in a better place than we found it.”

A day beforehand, Prime Minister Theresa May unveiled plans of how her Government will make a “success of Brexit”, through the introduction of a Great Repeal Act which will essentially handover all existing European Union (EU) into UK domestic law.

The PM made no specific reference to environmental regulations, but insisted that the existing framework of current EU legislation will be translated initially into UK law following negotiations. However, May did concede that Westminster politicians would have the power to reverse these regulations in the future.

“As we repeal the European Communities Act, we will convert the ‘acquis’ – that is, the body of existing EU law – into British law,” she stated. “When the Great Repeal Bill is given Royal Assent, Parliament will be free – subject to international agreements and treaties with other countries and the EU on matters such as trade – to amend, repeal and improve any law it chooses.

“But by converting the acquis into British law, we will give businesses and workers maximum certainty as we leave the European Union. The same rules and laws will apply to them after Brexit as they did before. Any changes in the law will have to be subject to full scrutiny and proper Parliamentary debate.”

May’s comments will do nothing to allay fears that EU law – accounting for more than 70% the UK’s domestic green legislation – could be “eroded” or scrapped entirely in the wake of the UK’s departure from the EU. The green economy has displayed vocal support for retaining EU environmental policy post-Brexit, with many claiming that an Europe-wide solution is imperative to tackle issues that “don’t respect borders”.

Green opposition

The Conservative’s lack of tangible green policy commitments lies in deep contrast with the array of pledges made during last week’s annual Labour Party Conference.

During the four-day event held in Liverpool, the opposition party unveiled ambitious proposals to source 65% of the UK’s energy needs from renewable sources by 2030 and ramp up the rate of domestic energy efficiency programme.

Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell claimed that the Labour Party would increase investment in low-carbon technology to utilise the “natural resources that could make us world-leaders in renewables”.

“At every single stage we have a Government that fails to reach that potential. It has cut scientific research spending, it has slashed subsidies to renewables, threatening tens of thousands of jobs, and it plans to cut essential public investment in transport, energy, and housing across the whole country,” McDonnell stated.

Shadow Energy and Climate Change Secretary Barry Gardiner announced that a Labour Government would impose a full ban on shale gas exploration, insisting that fracking “locks” the country into an energy infrastructure based on fossil fuels “long after the UK needs to have moved to renewables”.

Labour’s fracking ban plans were well received by Green Party co-leader Caroline Lucas, who urged the whole Labour Party to join the movement against new shale gas initiatives.

“Not only does fracking pose risks to local communities, but drilling for gas under our countryside risks undermining our climate change commitments too,” she said. “It’s now down to every Labour politician, from local councillors, to assembly members and MPs, to oppose any plans for fracking in their areas.”

George Ogleby

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