27 June 2024

Ditching net zero puts our security in jeopardy


Scrap net zero – and spend the cash on the NHS instead. That is the latest, implausible proposal from Reform UK’s chairman Richard Tice, building on the party’s manifesto pledge to tear up Tory plans on the environment.

Reform is promising not only to ditch net zero targets, but to tax renewable energy into the ground. This might sound tempting to voters frustrated by whopping energy bills and long NHS waiting lists. Yet these policies are not cost-free. Scrapping net zero opens a whole can of worms: lost economic opportunities from new innovative technologies; increased immigration numbers as climate disasters worsen; and, of course, the somewhat important issue of stopping the world from getting dangerously warmer.

Perhaps most importantly, declaring war on net zero will only exacerbate the UK’s pressing energy security challenges. 

Security has been a key theme of this election. With war still raging in Europe and tensions in the Middle East reaching boiling point, this shouldn’t be a surprise. But one major consequence of these conflicts is the impact on global energy supplies, which forced fossil fuel prices to spike, triggered a cost of living crisis, and sent inflation through the roof. 

With 85% of UK houses reliant on gas for heating, Russia turning off its gas taps hit households especially hard. We cannot sit idly by while foreign dictators use their oil and gas reserves to punish British citizens and bend countries to their whim. It is essential we stand on our own two feet; we must ramp up domestic energy production. And the cheapest, quickest way to do this is with clean energy such as wind, solar, and nuclear

Naturally, some will argue the answer can instead be found in our North Sea oil and gas reserves. The North Sea has traditionally been a source of UK energy independence, but after decades of drilling there isn’t much oil and gas left. Even with new oil and gas licences, production in the North Sea is set to drop by 95% as companies turn to more economically-sensible, easily accessible alternatives. 

Fracking has also been proposed by Reform, but this has been tried and failed too many times; the opposition from local communities is so entrenched it is impossible to find an appropriate location. 

This is not to say that oil and gas isn’t part of a net zero future. But we need renewable and nuclear energy to both decarbonise and guarantee our security. 

We can’t give up on the energy transition now. We are on our way to becoming energy independent and – potentially – even a net energy exporter. Half of our electricity comes from renewables compared to just 7% in 2010, harnessing Britain’s choppy coastlines and windy countryside. This was delivered largely because the government deployed market forces and private capital to drive down prices. This guiding principle built the five biggest offshore wind farms in the world here in the UK. 

Additionally, there is a whole host of economic opportunities provided by renewable energy. Although Reform’s budget unconvincingly argues net zero costs the British taxpayer £30 billion a year, the net zero industry already adds £74bn yearly to the UK’s economy. For example, by harnessing our Brexit benefits, freeports are providing businesses with tax breaks to create a domestic clean energy supply chain. In Teesside, the new £300 million offshore wind factory factory has brought 1,500 construction jobs to the North of England, with an additional 750 following close behind. 

However, there is a right and wrong way to do net zero. As we have seen in the last 14 years, the best way to expand domestic energy production is by harnessing the markets and letting private finance take the lead. It should not be about relying on government investment alone and creating a state-owned energy firm that crowds out the private sector. Nor should it mean a total abandonment of net zero, let alone taking a very anti-market strategy of taxing it into oblivion.

This opens up a powerful electoral opportunity for the Conservatives. They should be putting forward a positive, market-based case for net zero which builds on their achievements and promises to bring greater security for the UK. A strategy based only on attacking Labour’s environmental policies isn’t the right path. The Conservatives should challenge both Reform and Labour by presenting a realistic, credible yet ambitious plan for climate action and our security.

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Max Anderson is Senior Communications Manager at the Conservative Environment Network and Associate Fellow for Bright Blue.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.