Vince Cable: The net zero consensus is over

How do you save the planet when we no longer agree on key measures to save the planet? These questions are posed by Vince Cable in his latest column for Comment Central. As Vince often does, he poses questions that some Liberal Democrats will find difficult, particularly in relation to North Sea Oil licences and relations with China.

Consensus between the parties is key to making long term plans to save the planet, he argues.

He sets out how far the Conservatives have fallen on climate change:

It was Margaret Thatcher who originally embraced the global warming issue and wider environmental stewardship and who demonstrated by championing the Montreal Protocol on the Ozone Layer the force of British leadership. David Cameron (initially) and Boris Johnson continued this tradition. The resigning Environment Minister, Zac Goldsmith, has told us, however, that this Prime Minister is simply uninterested. Or hostile. Or cynically preparing for what I call the CAT strategy in the coming election: climate; asylum; and transgender; a culture war campaign.

He outlines a series of uncomfortable trade-offs that he says we must be prepared to make to get to Net Zero.

One of those trade-offs is cost. Nothing fuels populist anger more than regressive levies on environmental bads. For families whose sole practical, means of transport is an old banger, environmental taxes are resented, no matter the impact on the planet or local air quality. Politicians may choose to press ahead but they cannot ignore the negative side effects. In practice, the trade-offs are more complex. The environmental levy paid on fuel bills to provide support for new renewables was criticised for increasing energy bills but has helped to drive down the cost of offshore wind to a point that it is now consistently cheaper than gas.

He says that nuclear must also be part of the package:

Indeed, hostility to this impeccably zero carbon and energy secure domestic source has been led by the same green campaigners who oppose fossil fuel use. What we need is a portfolio of different, low carbon and secure sources including new renewables, nuclear and carbon capture.

This will cheer those within the party who are challenging our longstanding anti nuclear energy policy. Last year a motion to include nuclear power as part of an energy security package was put to Scottish Conference and referred back.

He calls opposition to new North Sea oil and gas licences “shrill and counterproductive” and says it is something we need to consider.

Much of the vehemence of the opposition is because of the involvement of oil companies. They are an attractive scapegoat for global warming. It is, unsurprisingly, easier to direct hostility to the companies which produce the fossil fuels than the general public whose demand provides the market. But there are trade-offs here also. Punishing or condemning British–based fossil fuel companies merely helps Saudi Aramco and their ilk.

Ok, so Vince was once the Chief Economist for Shell but this is an uncomfortable conversation we need to have in the party. I lived through the collapse of the mining industry in Nottinghamshire 30 years ago and saw the devastation to communities in terms of unemployment and poverty and have no wish to visit the same on the north east of Scotland or Shetland. That is not a just transition, however sympathetic I am to the idea that new North Sea Oil licences are a step too far.  We need to think very carefully about how we balance these needs. Undoubtedly, if we had been in charge, the just transition would have been more meaningful a long time ago.

And the final controversy is China. Vince is well known for advocating realpolitik rather than isolating the superpower.

China is an economic superpower and one of its achievements has been to anticipate future demand for renewable technology in solar power and electric vehicles. It dominates global battery production and supply chains. It will soon be the dominant producer of low cost, low carbon vehicles. If net-zero is the priority it will involve the government defending cooperation with Chinese companies and facing down those more concerned with superpower rivalry or the human rights record of China (and the interests of European car companies).

Liberal Democrats and Liberals and Social Democrats before us have long put stewardship of the planet front and centre of our thinking. That must never change, but it is important that we have thoughtful conversations about how best to do it and to win the arguments we need to win.

* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings

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18 Comments

  • Jenny Barnes 30th Aug '23 - 11:25am

    The trouble with solar and wind being praised as cheap is that it’s only true when it’s sunny or windy. When there’s a blocking high for 2 weeks in the middle of January, and those are your only power sources, it becomes hugely expensive. In fact priceless!

  • Laurence Cox 30th Aug '23 - 12:08pm

    As Vince rightly says “Nothing fuels populist anger more than regressive levies on environmental bads.”

    In London the ULEZ expansion to the boundary of the capital has just come in. But look at the predicted nitrogen oxides pollution map for 2030 in London (downloadable from https://data.london.gov.uk/dataset/london-atmospheric-emissions-inventory–laei–2019) and one polluter sticks out a mile – Heathrow airport. All those under Heathrow’s flight paths over London are getting NOx pollution from the skies to add to that produced by cars and gas appliances. We could end Heathrow pollution at a stroke (and free up much valuable land for housing in London) by making it Party Policy to close Heathrow. It is not as if London needs four airports (or six if you count Northolt and London City), but this time the opposition will come from the rich who travel by air much more often than the average person.

  • Martin Gray 30th Aug '23 - 2:13pm

    “We could end Heathrow pollution at a stroke (and free up much valuable land for housing in London) by making it Party Policy to close Heathrow”…
    61 million people pass through Heathrow every year + nearly 400k flights ….
    I understand we can be ambitious Lawrence given our poll ratings – but even that has limits …😉

  • I get the point that for really important policies that require massive action can be undone without building proper consensus, and it’s not enough to have good policies, they need to be well communicated, with consideration given to the unintended (but often predictable) consequences and have mitigation lined up.

    But that doesn’t mean ignoring facts. As much as slogans like ‘Just Stop Oil’ are slogans, not reasoned arguments or equate to a detailed energy plan, and we need to keep at least some attention on stopping using oil – we don’t need to grant new North Sea Oil licences. We have enough oil available via existing licences to fuel the UK as we make the necessary transition to a low carbon economy.

    Good network planning, a large enough grid and battery storage gets around most of the issues about periods of time with no sun or wind. If we have a big enough network then it’s probably windy somewhere, and we shouldn’t discount tidal and hydro. That said, while new nuclear is much more expensive than renewables, I’m not averse to accepting investment in that area to be certain of reliable base-load. Even if it’s just there as an expensive way to ease concerns.

  • George Thomas 30th Aug '23 - 10:26pm

    The basic problem is that the tone being used by Vince Cable was needed 15+ years ago. The idea that UK is trying to lead the world in green policy with the Lib Dems and Labour 15+ years behind what is needed and Tory government backing out of taking any real action at all is disheartening.

    The harsh reality is that Vince Cable is unlikely to feel the oncoming climate emergency in its full force on the basis of his age and his wealth. There are many politicians and industry leaders around the world who are in the same boat and therefore the necessary action isn’t taking place. Heck, the very low level “this is what we can agree to if really pushed in Paris Agreements etc.” action isn’t really taking place either and on this basis I do agree with the need to work with China etc.

  • Jenny Barnes 31st Aug '23 - 7:32am

    For example this morning. Demand 25GW. 1GW wind 0 solar,15 gas,5nuclear, 4 on interconnectors.

  • Peter Davies 31st Aug '23 - 10:28am

    @Laurence Cox. You forget “London Southend” and “London Oxford”

  • Laurence Cox 31st Aug '23 - 12:53pm

    @Peter Davies
    I don’t think that Southend and Oxford are significant airports in the way that Gatwick, Stansted and Luton are. That’s why I didn’t really include Northolt and London City, even though they are within the boundaries of Greater London. Add second runways at both Gatwick (which they want) and Stansted (which was approved from the start) and you don’t need Heathrow’s capacity.

    We need to remember that Heathrow was not the original London Airport – that was Croydon, now housing; it is time that we did the same for Heathrow and reduced pollution for Londoners. How many deaths from air pollution is an acceptable price to pay for cheap flights, quite apart from the contribution of aviation to global heating?

  • Get together with the Greens, they will use that and eat us alive. Believe me they are no friends of us.

  • Peter Davies 31st Aug '23 - 8:58pm

    The problem with solar and wind is not just that it is variable and unpredictable but unlike gas, it is not “easily turn-off-and-onable”. Demand also varies on daily, weekly seasonal cycles with a bit of unpredictability on top. Solar in particular is most available in summer when it is least needed. Nuclear power stations are also not easy to fire up or down. The only controlable renewables are hydro and geothermal.

    We can cope with the daily and random variations by building more short term storage: pump storage hydro, batteries, thermal etc and with more transmission and interconnections to even out the variations across a wider region. We could also reduce variability of supply by having a wider mix of renewables. Tidal head and tidal flow should both be on stream by now.

    The problem is seasonal variation in demand and solar generation. For that we need
    1. A big insulation program to reduce winter demand.
    2. Hydrogen generation and storage as well as finding new uses for it.
    3. Any industries that can be operated on a seasonal basis. That requires a very high ratio of energy use to capital cost.

  • Jenny Barnes 1st Sep '23 - 11:07am

    “2. Hydrogen generation and storage as well as finding new uses for it.”
    Yes, I agree. However, we need to be aware that our current electricity demand is around 25-30% of our total energy demand, and the marginal units of electricity are gas.
    Add on transport, electric cars and rail, domestic heating and hydrogen production for steel, cement, aluminium, and probably kerosene for aviation. And possibly to fuel hdrogen fired turbines as storage. Renewable electricity is about 1/8 or our total energy requirements now, so we need a huge increase, probably 10 times. And there’s a problem with that. Windmills, in particular, but also nuclear, pay off over a long period as the fuel is effectively free. But construction takes a lot of energy. What can we stop doing to free up enough energy to build 10 times our existing nonCO2 electrical generation capacity?

    It might make sense to start installing heatpumps for domestic heating so that they are in place when this huge increase in renewables happens, but meanwhile, with the marginal unit of electricity being gas generated, and a typical COP of 2, they make little sense. Every KW of electricity needs 2KW of gas energy due to Carnot efficiency, so your 2KW of gas give you 2KW of heat whether it’s burnt in a gas boiler or the power station.

  • Carbon-intensity is important but so is cost. Energy is in everything we do so if it’s expensive the cost of living is too high AND industry is priced out of markets. What matters is the AVERAGE, not occasional spike prices. Ditto for carbon-intensity.

    Pumped hydro is useful but minor (few good/big sites). Batteries are too expensive (mainly used for voltage/frequency regulation).

    But there is big potential to save cost AND carbon with genuine smart meters which is, AFAIK, unexplored.

    Imagine a souped-up version of the Economy 7 tariff where your smart meter shows your supplier’s forecast price in half hour segments for the next few hours. It would be cheap in the small hours of windy nights, expensive during the day in still and cloudy weather.

    You could then plan when to charge your car, do your washing etc. In practice, only some demand would be time-shifted but useful amounts would be, boosting the share of renewables and reducing that of fossil fuels in the mix.

    Moreover, the grid is sized for maximum demand so it would lead to better capacity utilisation and that is a big cost saving.

    Power retailers will hate this because it would create a more competitive market so government would probably have to legislate to make it happen.

  • I’m not sure where the figure of a COP of 2 being typical for heat pumps comes from. I’ve heard that 3 is the ‘typical’ basic expectation, while 4-5 is possible in some circumstances. More focus on ground source, rather than air source would boost those numbers for the trickier circumstances. But I do fear that some installations are not up to scratch, and shoddy work practices shouldn’t be excused because it’s a novel technology.

    Around here there are a number of new housing projects with air source heat pumps, and many of them have solar panels too. And yes, the solar won’t power the heat pumps at 8pm on a cold Winter’s night – not unless there is associated battery storage, but as heat pump heating is typically on lower for longer, that will include some daylight hours anyway.

  • Jennie (Comment 1st Sept @ 11:07)

    Re heat pumps. They are of course the government’s ‘get out of jail’ card, routinely used when it risks being exposed as having no plan thus forcing ministers to reach for something greenish to say to paper over the void.

    Heat pumps aren’t going to become common anytime soon for one simple reason – they are complicated to install and there just isn’t the skills base to do it at scale.

    We did a major home improvement project five years ago which involved putting in underfloor heating with a heat pump but were warned by the architect that only two of the many heating engineers in the area could install a working scheme. We had one of those two and it has always worked flawlessly. A friend used someone else, and it’s never worked properly.

    While the plural of anecdote is not data, this and many other stories point to the appalling state of trade skills in this country which in turn is a function of comprehensive political neglect of the well-being of the non-Oxbridge classes and of the real (as opposed to rent-extracting) economy.

    Incidentally, the thermal inertial of the floor slab is huge. I image (we are not set up to do this) that we could turn off the heating for half an hour during early evening peak demand and hardly notice except in the coldest weather.

  • Peter Hirst 5th Sep '23 - 4:27pm

    Whoever wins the next GE needs to think of win/win in terms of the environment and the col crisis. Policies can be constructed so that they win on both counts even if requiring some public funding initially. Home insulation is one such as it reduces energy costs as long as the public are educated around thermostat settings. Electric cars are another because the running costs are lower even if some help with purchasing is required. The environmental benefits are obvious. Organic food is a third. No fertiliser needed or allowed although some cost management might be required at least initially.

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