With less than a month until COP26, the question everyone was asking across both the Conservative and Labour conferences was: how can the UK reach its net zero targets?
Kisha Couchman and Katie Maguire explore the essential takeaways on energy and environment from the 2021 conference season.
Energy policy @Conservative conference
New 2035 target for power sector
The major energy policy announcement coming out of Conservative conference was the Government’s pledge to decarbonise the power sector by 2035, decisively reaffirming its desire to move away from natural gas. The Government will therefore be doubling down on efforts to deploy low carbon energy generation, including offshore wind, solar, nuclear and hydrogen alongside carbon capture, utilisation and storage (CCUS). Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng clarified that the recent volatility of gas prices had demonstrated the urgent need for the UK to secure greater energy independence in line with its net zero ambitions.
How to reach net zero and protect the vulnerable
Another political challenge in this space was how the Conservative Party would ensure a fair and equitable transition thatprotected vulnerable people from facing high costs. There was a big focus on the balance between the “carrot and stick” approach of using regulatory action and market mechanism vs incentivisation to enthuse consumers to take action. Interestingly, there was no mention of the “rebel group” of “red wall” Conservative MPs seeking to scrutinise the costs of net zero, with all fringe events reiterating a broad consensus for net zero, including buy-in from the Treasury.
Decarbonisation of housing was a recurring theme
Another reccurring theme on the fringe scene included discussion around the main challenges of decarbonising the UK’s draughty buildings and housing stock. The overarching takeaway was the desire for long-term policies in the heat and buildings strategy for both heat pumps and hydrogen, which would provide long-term certainty for the market, investors and developers.
Environment policy @Conservative conference
To nationalise, or not to nationalise?
The debate over whether the energy industry should be nationalised raged at Labour conference. Sir Keir Starmer told Andrew Marr it should only happen where it would provide better value for money for consumers, a break with pledges in his leadership campaign to bring in "common ownership of rail, mail, energy and water", and also at odds with Shadow Business Secretary Ed Miliband, who has continued to back a nationalised energy industry. Delegates in Brighton also voted in favour of a motion that public energy ownership would help green the industry and provide for greater fairness for consumers.
New climate pledges from the Shadow Chancellor
A chunk of Shadow Chancellor Rachel Reeves’s speech focused on climate change. She told delegates that as Chancellor she would invest in “good jobs in green industries of the future”, including offshore wind, electric vehicles in giga factories, and high-quality new jobs in communities throughout the UK. She also promised an additional £28 billion of capital investment in the country’s green transition for every year of this decade.
Energy market needs a rethink
Shadow Minister for Green New Deal and Energy Alan Whitehead called for a rethink on the structure of the energy market after the energy prices crisis is resolved. Dr Whitehead said a new energy system needed to emerge from the current crisis, with a system whereby consumers switch because of a good deal, and not to an energy supplier soon to exit the market.
COP26 – what success would look like
BEIS Committee Chair Darren Jones said a successful COP would see renewed commitments to keep global warming to under 1.5 degrees, expressing concern over how far there still was to go. He warned that COVID had meant smaller fringe presence at the event and this could mean pressuring attendees to make big commitments would be more difficult.
Environment policy @Conservative conference
Government backed nature recovery
Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Minister Rebecca Pow was clear that the Government and the Prime Minister, in her view, are committed to nature recovery. She announced her role had been renamed Nature Recovery Minister and pointed to the Environment Bill target to halt the decline of species abundance as evidence of this commitment.
Government working with farmers on biodiversity
Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Minister Victoria Prentis said her role in the Department was focusing on reversing biodiversity loss, with an initial focus on soil standards and hedgerows. The Government was working alongside farmers on this work, she said, and was keen to emphasise that they are viewed as active players in the fight to save the environment – not opposing forces.
Environment policy @Labour conference
‘Weak’ Environment Bill
At two events, Shadow Minister for Natural Environment and Air Quality Ruth Jones took aim at the Environment Bill, calling it a “very weak” Bill, and said the Labour Party would be pushing for targets, including on deposit return schemes, and ensuring resources were available for local councils.
Plastic: pollution and solutions
Ms Jones spoke on the issue of plastic pollution, setting out Labour’s solution – prevention, looking for alternatives to plastic, reusing products, and using recycled materials.