29 September 2023

Nimbys are the biggest threat to Net Zero


With the decision to greenlight new oil drilling at Rosebank, it’s clear that Britain will continue to rely on fossil fuels long into the future. This is a direct result of our failure to embrace nuclear.

The phasing out of coal in Britain has been a wild success in terms of carbon emissions, contributing to reducing them to 1860 levels. In 2010, the UK used 41.48m metric tons of coal in energy generation. In 2021, it used just 2.65m tons – a decrease of more than 95%. But the energy lost through the closure of Britain’s coal fired power stations hasn’t been replaced. The government banked on the power promised by Hinckley and Sizewell C to force the UK off coal far faster than expected, but now these two megaprojects have hit inevitable delays. As a result, we are far more dependent on imports, which have risen from 7,144 gigawatt-hours in 2010 to 28,743 gigawatt-hours in 2021. Britain’s ability to meet its’ baseload energy requirements is now questionable at best: last year, as a combination of high demand, calm air and cuts to imports of Russian gas prompted warnings of rolling blackouts.

The failure to deliver more energy has left Britain poorer, less secure and less resilient. Rosebank’s opening is a sign that politicians may finally have grasped that whilst things look black now, they may get worse before they get better. As James McSweeney writes in The Critic:

Whoever walks into No.10 in 2024 is in for a rough five years. The primary reason for this is the ticking time bomb that is UK energy policy. For over a decade, the UK has been replacing reliable gas and coal power stations with wind installations of randomised output. Resultantly, dispatchable generation (that is, the energy we can generate on demand) is now below peak demand and set to fall further. Indeed, a recent study suggests we’ll have only 85% of what we need by 2027…

That is just declining supply, however. In shadowy, silent distance grows the iceberg of vast increases in demand. Projections around heat pumps and electric vehicles alone – even without accounting for population growth – predict a 68.6GW peak shortfall by 2035. In nuclear terms, that means Britain needs to build the equivalent of another 27 Hinckley Point Cs over the next 12 years.

Anyone remotely familiar with Britain understand how laughably unachievable this goal is: it has taken 13 years to build just a single Hinckley Point C. The fact is that the biggest blocker to energy generation is Britain’s fundamental incapacity to build anything, anywhere, ever. As Simon Cooke writes:

 We are at least 4m homes short of existing housing needs, we haven’t built a new reservoir for thirty years and it takes a minimum of ten years to give ourselves permission to build a nuclear power station. We are closing down regional airports, can’t expand Heathrow and the only new railway we are trying to build is probably going to terminate a tantalising mile or so from the centre of London.

There has been increasingly widespread recognition that current planning regulations are a barrier to building for years. Rosebank’s greenlight is an admission of failure; the inability – and unwillingness – to tackle these barriers has left Britain so ill-equipped for the future that the only realistic way the government can avert future energy crises is to open fossil fuel projects outside of the purview of the planning system.

The planning system, currently constituted, stands in direct opposition to a greener and cleaner future, the planning system has to be overcome. And to do that, Conservatives have little option to use the most powerful tool at their hands; the state.

In the Onward paper ‘The Road to Credibility’, Tim Pitt writes that:

Conservatism has welcomed economic change, both for the progress it can deliver and as necessary to ensure the political and social stability which Conservatives believe so important. The challenge is to manage it, gradually and sensitively, with proper appreciation of how people and communities need to be protected, and of the vital importance of institutions.

Climate change may be the biggest change to our civilizational infrastructure since the Industrial Revolution, and Conservatives are charged with delivering a policy programme to tackle it without a decline in living standards. The reality is Britain’s planning problem prevents us doing that – and the potential scale and impact of the coming energy crunch demands radical action.

The state has a central role to play in preventing this energy crunch. The stakes are high; our energy security, safe environmental choices, the competitiveness of our economy and the living standards of our citizens. These are issues of vital national importance – but they are also issues our existing planning system is structurally incapable of considering.

The state needs the ability to exempt infrastructure projects of vital national importance from the existing planning framework in order to ensure that they are delivered not only on time and on budget, but delivered at all. If we allow the planning system to hold up the incoming wave of small modular nuclear reactors, to continue blocking new reservoirs and even prevent renewable energy sites, then then we will have failed in our mission to manage one of the greatest challenges we have faced in government.

Nimbyism is the eternal enemy of growth, but the opportunity to defeat it may finally be at hand. Instability has exposed how vulnerable Britain is to international events, and support for energy independence is high. YouGov polling shows that support for nuclear power – and wind farms – in people’s local area increases when it’s framed as a way of reducing dependence on foreign energy and lowering bills. In turbulent waters, people have come to recognise the value of the state as a lifeboat. As Michael Ignatieff writes:

The state cannot protect citizens from their own mistakes, but it must be there to protect them from systemic risk, from those national or global economic storms that threaten their pensions, savings, investments, and employment. What effective sovereignty means for an average citizen is that their state has some real, even if limited, capacity to protect them from economic harms that are not their fault.

Every political decision we make involves trade-offs. The unwillingness to force through vital national infrastructure projects against the wishes of Nimbys or anti-nuclear activists is balanced against making Britain, and everyone who lives there, poorer and less resilient. If things continue as they are, we’ll get where we’re going. And we’ll have no one to blame but ourselves.

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Tom Jones is writer and a Conservative councillor for Scotton & Lower Wensleydale

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