Boris Johnson is pushing ahead with plans to bring the UK’s net carbon emissions to zero by 2050 despite his attempts to boost North Sea oil and gas production as he faces growing pressure from critics to soften the legally binding goal.
In a new energy security strategy due in the coming weeks, the Prime Minister will explain how the Russian invasion of Ukraine has caused him to rethink his approach.
He wants to phase out Russian oil and gas imports and replace them with British production. At the same time, the war has exacerbated a severe cost of living crisis as households face record domestic fuel bills, increasing pressure on Downing Street to ease the cost of the energy transition.
Johnson shared his thoughts last weekend at the Conservative Party Conference, saying he wanted to “make better use of our own natural hydrocarbons, rather than importing them cheaply from abroad and invest money in [Russian president Vladimir] Putin’s bank account.
“This in no way means that we will abandon our desire for a low-carbon future,” he insisted.
But this transition will have a price. Sir Dieter Helm, professor of energy policy at Oxford University, warned that politicians have glossed over the long-term costs of reaching net zero. “Pretending that the costs don’t exist, or that they will all disappear in a blitz of new technologies anytime soon, is a dangerous narrative about climate change,” he wrote this year.
Some of Johnson’s critics have urged the prime minister to cut net zero, arguing that with household budgets under severe pressure now is not the time to pass the cost of the transition on to the public.
Among those challenging him are right-wing populists Nigel Farage and Richard Tice, former Brexit campaigners, who plan to launch an anti-net zero campaign called “Vote Power Not Poverty”. Their views are shared by at least 20 right-wing Conservative MPs who form the “Net Zero Scrutiny Group” in parliament.
One of the main demands is the removal of the £153 environmental levy on electricity bills, which helps fund the construction of renewables, to partly offset the expected rise in household energy costs to around 3,000 £ later this year.
But a Johnson ally said the prime minister was determined to ‘face’ the critics and that soaring petrol prices only strengthened his case. “Net zero is something he really believes in, it’s one of his guiding missions,” he said.
Environmentalists wondered how Johnson could reconcile his support for net zero with his newfound enthusiasm for the North Sea. But that ignores the fact that the strategy still sees gas as part of the energy mix by 2050, albeit at much lower levels and with emissions reduced by carbon capture technologies.
An official said the Prime Minister’s premise was that British gas would displace fossil fuel imports rather than increase their overall use.
Climate campaigners want a ban on new licenses, arguing there is a difference between exploring for new reserves – which can take decades to bring into production – and extracting more from existing fields.
Johnson recently outlined his thinking behind his delayed energy security strategy, insisting that renewables would remain front and center and offer cheaper energy. “Green electricity isn’t just better for the environment, it’s better for your bank balance,” he said.
Antony Froggatt, deputy director of the environment and society program at Chatham House, agrees. Wind and solar “have gone from a relatively expensive option to a relatively cheaper option in many parts of the world. And it will continue,” he said.
Yet the math is complicated by the “intermittency” of renewables – sometimes there is no sun or wind – which means they need backup technologies such as battery storage.
The official cost of reaching net zero is estimated at £1.4 billion over the next 30 years. However, this is offset by planned changes – such as insulating homes or switching to electric cars – which are expected to eventually cut running costs and deliver £1billion in savings, according to the Climate Change Committee , which advises the government.
For now, Johnson’s approach to net zero has voter support. A Deltapoll survey found that 63% supported its policy and only 8% opposed it. Still, more detailed polls suggest that support drops if people think they’re facing a personal financial hit.
The cost of decarbonisation in the UK has so far had relatively little direct impact on consumers as it has been concentrated on the electricity grid. Experts have warned that future phases of the transition to net zero will be more costly for households.
Banning the sale of new petrol and diesel cars from 2030 will force drivers to buy electric vehicles which are currently expensive.
Households will also have to replace gas boilers with electric heat pumps, which cost around £10,000. But ministers have yet to set a date for the switchover, nor have they provided much incentive: the existing government scheme offers a one-time £5,000 grant limited to 30,000 households a year.
A report by the House of Lords industry committee this month lamented the lack of “credible plans” to reach net zero. “There is no point in planning for a carbon-free energy future if you don’t know how you will get there or how it will be paid for,” said Lord Clive Hollick, chairman of the committee.
The reaction to the “Vote Power, Not Poverty” initiative underscores just how heated the debate around net zero could become. “Me and Nigel [Farage] had more vitriol and abuse than us during Brexit,” Tice admitted. The campaign launch on Saturday in Bolton, a town in north-west England, was canceled after two venues refused to host the group.
Environmentalists said Tice and Farage misjudged the public mood. “It’s a bad time for critics of net zero who find themselves advocating for an increase in our dependence on gas when gas is six times more expensive than the clean energy sources they are trying to ‘stop,” said UK manager Joss Garman. of the European Climate Foundation.