Lesley Riddoch: Time to plan a future without oil

David Cameron must get real in the wake of this weekend’s Paris accord on climate change, writes Lesley Riddoch

Rather than cuddling Norwegian huskies, David Cameron might follow the country's  example on renewables. Picture: PA
Rather than cuddling Norwegian huskies, David Cameron might follow the country's example on renewables. Picture: PA

As world leaders signed up to a historic climate change deal which – if implemented – will herald the end of the Oil Age, David Cameron had the temerity to claim; “Britain is already leading the way in work to cut emissions.” Well, he did win the General Election, so I suppose the Prime Minister believes he can fool most of the people all of the time. South of the Border at least, North of it, you don’t have to be an SNP diehard to snort with derision at the idea David Cameron is the man to lead the world towards a new Green dawn. Cuts by his government have virtually ended community renewables, decimated the fledgling marine energy sector, placed big question marks over the viability of offshore wind, halted investment in solar, halved the cash going into energy efficiency and welched on a manifesto commitment to spend £1 billion on carbon capture (CCS) at Peterhead creating 600 new jobs.

According to James Murray, editor of Business Green, this most recent U-turn may also be the most serious: “For several years CCS has been the fig leaf the government has used to justify pretty much every controversial high carbon energy policy it has pursued. ‘Why are you planning to build more gas power plants at a time when we need to pretty much fully decarbonise the power sector?’ critics asked. ‘CCS can solve that,’ ministers replied. ‘Why are you looking to build a fracking industry and maximise North Sea production when we have to more than halve emissions by the early 2030s?’ green groups inquire. ‘CCS can solve that,’ ministers countered. ‘Why are you exempting heavy industry from carbon costs,’ campaigners queried. ‘Because we want those industries to stay here and decarbonise over time,’ ministers responded, ‘CCS can solve that’.”

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Except it won’t.

Cameron’s “green” credentials now consist of little more than plans to create new Chinese-funded nuclear power stations in England. Of course, nuclear energy cuts carbon emissions. It also creates Fukoshima levels of risk, depends on non-renewable supplies of uranium, is more expensive than other forms of baseload energy because it can’t be quickly switched on and off and stops the flow of research cash to nascent marine technologies, which should be able to deliver endless supplies of green baseload energy to British households thanks to world-beating natural assets like the Pentland Firth for tidal energy and the whole western seaboard for wave energy. Finally, even though nuclear has been awarded far higher subsidies for a longer guaranteed period than anything ever offered to renewables, Hinkley C remains stubbornly unattractive to home-grown investors. It seems worries over disposal of waste, safety and the high cost of maintenance make nuclear as unattractive to the City moneymen as it is to most Scottish voters. Meanwhile, British intelligence agency sources say we will never know what hidden capabilities are being built into Hinkley C’s software by their foreign owners.

But steady.

Perhaps David Cameron chose the words of his “green leadership” claim with care. Perhaps the UK is indeed leading the world on work to cut emissions – the work just hasn’t borne any fruit. Meanwhile in the real world, where deeds, not words, matter, every other European country bar Malta and Lichtenstein has more renewables in its energy mix than the UK. Renewables form 51.2 per cent of the energy mix in Norway (mostly hydro), and 62 per cent in Sweden, mostly by incinerating the tiny amount of rubbish the Swedes don’t recycle. The UK manages a shameful 4.2 per cent. George Osborne says axing renewables subsidies will save money but his own impact assessment suggests the savings amount to a far from whopping 30p per year per household, while an additional 63 million tonnes of CO2 emissions are pumped into the atmosphere.

Whaur’s yer huskies noo Dave?

Now to be fair, if Scotland had been in attendance as an independent nation we would doubtless have heard another rather ropey claim that Scotland has the most ambitious climate change targets in the world.

Perhaps we do. But whilst targets remain high, this year the Scottish Government missed its annual climate emissions target for the fourth year running. Of course, some of that’s due to Cameron’s wavering commitment to renewables. According to Scottish Renewables boss Niall Stuart the premature end of the Renewables Obligation and other cuts mean Scotland is only halfway to its renewable heat target and will likely generate just 87 per cent rather than the target 100 per cent of our energy needs by 2020.

Which is tragic because the engineering capacity, the natural assets and the political commitment in Scotland are all in place. Alex Salmond recognised the economic, political and constitutional importance of a thriving, indigenous Scottish renewable energy sector. Unfortunately, it seems Cameron has recognised it too and cut research, subsidies and tariffs to thwart another economic claim for Scottish independence in the wake of the oil price collapse.

But energy production isn’t the only problem. Emissions are also created by transport, agriculture and badly insulated homes. Energy reduction measures and district heating schemes are as important as green energy and if Patrick Harvie’s insulation proposals had been adopted in 2007, Scotland’s green “performance” would be far healthier today.

What’s needed is an agreed, shared and legally enforceable plan. Otherwise everyone, especially government departments and agencies, will keep acting as they have always acted – choosing the cheapest and least risky energy solution in procurement and government spending.

Ed Miliband plans to launch a cross-party campaign for legislation to reduce emissions to zero. It’s a good idea. But the UK excels at creating laudable targets without planning how to reach them. If the momentous accord finally hammered out in Paris is to mean anything, it must prompt citizens to get wise to the hollow nature of government claims, slogans and targets and demand nothing short of action. And it must encourage governments to stop wilfully misleading the public into believing unleaded petrol and long-life lightbulbs are enough to save the planet.

With the Forth Road Bridge closed and tens of thousands more commuters using and considering public transport, there’s no better time for the kidology to stop and planning for life after oil to begin.