The net zero headache that faces Prime Minister Starmer

Labour leader will need to deliver on his Green Prosperity Plan or be forced into humiliating climbdowns

Haven’t we all promised things we couldn’t deliver? Maybe over Christmas dinner you swore to get in shape for a summer beach holiday. Perhaps the age by which you vowed to have published your first novel has long passed.

Prime Minister-in-waiting Sir Keir Starmer has pledged to decarbonise Britain’s electricity grid by 2030 - five years earlier than the present government and just beyond the horizon of the next parliamentary term.

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The debate over fossil fuels and the future of the energy market loomed large in the second week of the general election campaign, after the first was dominated in Scotland by the row over former health secretary Michael Matheson and his iPad data roaming bill.

Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar, Labour Party leader Sir Keir Starmer and shadow secretary of state for energy security and net zero Ed Miliband in Greenock on the General Election campaign trail. Photo: Stefan Rousseau/PA WireScottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar, Labour Party leader Sir Keir Starmer and shadow secretary of state for energy security and net zero Ed Miliband in Greenock on the General Election campaign trail. Photo: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire
Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar, Labour Party leader Sir Keir Starmer and shadow secretary of state for energy security and net zero Ed Miliband in Greenock on the General Election campaign trail. Photo: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire

Labour’s Green Prosperity Plan would see the creation of a state-owned clean power company, Great British Energy, headquartered in Scotland and funded by a windfall tax on oil and gas companies.

The party remains opposed to new North Sea oil and gas licences - an issue on which John Swinney has vacillated since the SNP’s power sharing deal with the Scottish Greens blew up and he became First Minister.

Instead, Starmer wants to ramp up wind and solar capacity, which he claims will help reduce household energy bills by £300 a year and create 650,000 jobs.

Labour’s original £28 billion a year green energy plans may have been significantly watered down, but these remain highly ambitious targets.

However Scotland’s net zero secretary Mairi McAllan might caution against being so ambitious as to be unrealistic.

She had to announce to MSPs in April that the Scottish Government’s target of cutting emissions by 75 per cent by 2030 was out of reach. She later revealed that, in her opinion, the goal “was always beyond what was possible”.

Starmer and his government stand a very strong chance of being similarly embarrassed as 2030 approaches.

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Labour’s claim over how cheap renewables are compared to fossil fuels is subject to debate. The party originally said its plans would save households around £1,400 a year - a figure it now puts at £300.

Gas prices have fallen since 2022 while the cost of delivering renewables has risen so much that no developers bid in the UK’s offshore wind auction last year. This meant the government was forced to increase the maximum price new wind farms can be paid for each megawatt hour they eventually produce under its subsidy scheme.

Bill payers may well ask why, if wind power really is so cheap, it has to be so heavily subsidised.

Then there is the £60 billion the National Grid says it will cost to fast-track the transition to a net-zero power grid.

And there is the intractable problem of intermittency. Wind farms and solar panels cannot generate power when the wind is not blowing or the sun is not shining. We need back-up when wind and solar are low but it is not clear what would replace gas in this role.

Expanded nuclear capacity will help, but not in time for 2030. Work hasn’t even started yet on Sizewell C in Suffolk and Hinkley Point C in Somerset is due to open in 2031.

Carbon capture and storage (CCS) could be part of the solution, extracting carbon dioxide from the exhausts of fossil fuel-fired power stations. But with no new licences in the North Sea that would lead to us being dependent on fossil fuels imported from countries we might not like very much, and which might not like us either.

Beset with these problems, Starmer and his net zero evangelist Ed Miliband could struggle to deliver on the energy bill savings promised. If so, some voters might conclude renewables are a cause of high energy bills rather than the solution to them.

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And, unless the long-promised green jobs revolution materialises, resentment will fester, particularly in the north east of Scotland, as the once thriving sector declines. Who will employ those who have lost their jobs in oil and gas? At present, many people would struggle to name a single major UK green employer.

The SNP’s energy strategy, to be published after the election, is expected to scrap the party’s “presumption against” new oil and gas, pitting Holyrood against a Labour UK government.

But Starmer might also find himself increasingly at odds with European leaders and the US on energy and climate policy.

Voters in the European Union begin going to the polls today in a vote that could see green policies deprioritised.

Right-wing populist parties are projected to make big gains, with Greens the biggest losers, according to analysts at the Economist Intelligence Unit, who cite “a growing backlash from citizens against green policies, with farmers taking to the streets across Europe”.

Mind-bogglingly, Donald Trump remains favourite to win a second term as US President in November, despite his conviction last week for falsifying business records to cover up “hush money” payments to porn star Stormy Daniels.

In recent rallies Trump has described renewable energy as a “scam” and vowed to “drill, baby, drill”. He has said on his first day in office he would repeal “crooked Joe Biden’s insane electric vehicle mandate” and approve new gas export terminals.

Starmer knows he doesn’t have to do much to win comfortably on July 4, but from then on he will have to fill in the holes in the Green Prosperity Plan to stop it unravelling and deliver on decarbonising the grid, bringing down energy bills and creating green jobs.

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Failing that, the next five years will consist of a series of humiliating climbdowns as climate targets collide with reality. One day Starmer might, like McAllan, have to concede his 2030 decarbonisation target “was always beyond what was possible”.

His premiership will be largely defined by how far he is willing and able to take us down the path to net zero.

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